The Yeticom Optima is a new radio designed for use by CB and Amateur operators. Whilst the radio firmly has its origins as a ”freeband CB” it will also be a welcome addition to any radio amateur looking for a reasonably priced all mode 12m/10m rig for mobile use. Upon first sight you might be thinking that you have seen this radio before. I can assure you that this is not the case! It shares the same casing and form factor as the ever popular Magnum 257 or Albrecht AE-485 but that is where the similarities stop. Unlike the other radios that look same this one is not made in Korea, it is made in Hong Kong by a company called GW Telecom. The mainboard is a redesign but the radio uses the same body shell and LCD display that the other variants have used for many years.
The Optima was initially created by the guys at Yeticom in New Zealand and Indonesia as they were getting increasingly frustrated at the quality of current 10/11m radios available on the market. Whilst there is a lot of choice out there from different manufacturers quality control and features are lacking in some models to the extent that a lot of retailers now offer “tune-up” services when you purchase a brand new radio. Surely that shouldn’t be necessary when you purchase a new rig? After all it’s new! Sadly that is not always the case, some radios arrive so far off the mark that it’s almost a prerequisite in order to avoid buying a lemon.
Dave (91DD081) at Yeticom is a guy on a mission. His mission is to rid the world of bad sounding radios and make sure that freeband operators and amateurs alike can get what they pay for, a radio that works. The Optima has spent nearly two years in the development stages and Yeticom should be congratulated for sticking to what they believe as many prototypes were made and sent to them in this process in order to get things right. What is more remarkable is that a small company has taken on the big guys to produce a new radio and bring it to the market in such a timescale. So with this in mind I bring you a little look at the Optima in the hope that you can see the changes that Yeticom have made compared to a standard Albrecht or Magnum transceiver. Granted that some of the changes are very subtle and it is not until you start to operate the radio that you realise that the small things they have done make the big things happen and increase the enjoyment of operating such a radio.
Ok, let’s start at the basics. The frequency coverage has been improved over similar models. The default freeband range available is a huge 24.500 MHz through to 29.999 MHz in all modes. This is the way the radio is meant to be used, as nature intended. However for the cautious amateur or squeaky clean CB op, the radio can be set to a restricted frequency or channel range by means of internal jumpers. The current ranges available include the 12m and 10m ham bands for pure amateur operation, the New Zealand CB band of 40 channels and the original FCC 40 Channel mid block allocation accepted in a lot of countries worldwide.
One of the most improved features on the Optima is the continuous tuning in freeband mode. Unlike other similar radios the Optima can tune all the way through the frequencies with no bands getting in the way. For all intents and purposes you can forget about channel numbers, banks, bands and have smooth tuning from 24.5 up to 30 MHz in default steps of 5 Khz. This is perfect for 11m operation and hanging around 27.555 MHz for those exotic DX stations as you can move up or down in 5 KHz steps to get to the popular zero ending frequencies that more and more stations are using under crowded band conditions. Of course, not everyone appreciates or needs 5 KHz steps but these can be instantly transformed into 1/5/10/100 KHz steps if this is more appropriate to your needs. There is also a “fast” 1 MHz jump option that is triggered by pressing the “call” button to allow rapid band changing if required. Another significant improvement has arrived with the advent of these tuning steps, the up and down keys on the mic. When the buttons are pressed they retain the stepping that the radio is currently set to. On the old Magnum 257 or similar the pressing of the mic keys would cause the radio to jump back to 10 KHz steps and loose whatever offset you had programmed. Not on the Optima though. Yeticom have redesigned the software to retain steps no matter what operation is performed. The stepping options are set by pressing the “step” key on the radio and you can cycle through the digits to set your preferences.
The radio features flow-stepping which is normally only found on more expensive radios but a very clever little feature. To show this in action and example would be for use on FM here in the UK. We have some “odd” looking FM only channels between 27.601 MHz and 27.991 MHz. Thanks to the flow stepping on the Optima we can set the 1 Khz offset initially to make 27.601 Mhz and then press the step key again to make the “0″ digit flash and then rotate the VFO to tune in 10 MHz steps through the UK channels whilst at the same time retaining the 1 KHz at the end of the frequency. It makes life very easy with the Optima. On a banded radio the entire range mentioned above tunes through two CB radio bands on a “normal” radio meaning you would need to set all this up again when you crossed over bands. A real time saver! It’s the subtle little things like this that make the Optima different. Speaking of which, the radio also holds the last frequency and mode setting used even when the power is totally disconnected from the set. Nothing is ever lost and that includes the memories. Unlike others the Optima doesn’t forget its working conditions even if put back into the box for 6 months or a year. It stores all settings in non-volatile memory and no leaky battery to worry about!
Another useful feature for ham operators is the repeater shift option and this may also appeal to other users of CB based gateways or repeaters. The shift can be programmed with an offset of your choice and then activated in plus or minus mode so when you transmit the radio will change to the required TX (repeater input) frequency and then back to the original receive frequency (repeater output) when you release the PTT button. The default shift is programmed as 000 MHz so if you try this option from the box nothing will happen. I’m told that a default shift may be pre-programmed in future revisions of this radio, maybe 100 KHz would be a sensible choice for repeater operation?
Moving on to the output power side of things the Optima isn’t short of a few watts, the radio can give out a healthy 50W PEP SSB, 50W FM and 15W AM (RMS). The output stage on the radio is provided by dual IRF520 MOSFET transistors attached to a very substantial heat sink and fan unit. The fan runs whenever the unit is placed into transmit mode and will continue to operate for 30 seconds after the transmit mode has ended. It should be noted that the fan choice is excellent and can hardly be heard running as this is a very high quality unit. When I first considered how the fan operates and I thought this was backwards step as most amateur gear tends to be temperature controlled when it comes to cooling fans however after I put the question to Dave he gave me the reasons as to why the radio was designed this way. “Temperature controlled devices can be problematical as this allows the heat sink to heat up. Fan comes on with key down and remains on for 30 seconds so the radio is always cool and never has a chance to heat up. Temp sensors can mess up, this is simple and efficient”. So there you have it, and it works extremely well. As this radio is sold all around the world the temperature conditions it will be used in will vary tremendously. Here in the UK we are approaching the dizzying heights of the mid twenty degrees Celsius into June but I don’t think the radio will break out into a sweat somehow!
From the tests I have carried out into a dummy load even running the radio at full FM output power has resulted in very cool running operations with the heat sink hardly warming up at all. The power output on the Optima is variable in all modes from the front mounted control on the top right hand side of the radio. In reality the FM power level seemed to be at almost maximum after the control was rotated past half way. The lowest level I could get the radio down to was about 5W FM and 15W PEP on SSB.
Frequency stability on the Optima is one of things that Yeticom are keen to point out. A lot of 10/11m radios are very drifty due to poor circuit design. It is common for many operators to switch their radio on about 15 minutes before they wish to use it in order to correct the drift as components warm up. The design of the Optima mainboard has been improved substantially to reduce drift as much as possible. In real life on air test situation the stations I spoke to didn’t notice any drift even after using the radio for an extended period and this was true as the radio warmed up. The accuracy of the test radio seemed to be spot on frequency. I tested and confirmed this using another known HF radio on a given frequency and I didn’t need to move the clarifier at all to get naturally sounding audio on SSB. Regarding the clarifier on the Optima itself this is unlocked so that it affects both TX and RX if required. This is handy if you need to shift down a little if the other station you are talking to is slightly off frequency although leaving it at the 12 o’clock position if usually fine. The span of the clarifier is quoted as being able to shift 1.0 KHz up or down from the displayed frequency on the LCD panel. In future production runs I’ve been told that Yeticom would like to offer the option of locking the clarifier to RX only by means of a switch. This would be handy and very similar to some Galaxy transceivers such as the DX-95T that I have used in the past.
On the receiver side of things the Optima also excels. The built in speaker might gives great, loud audio in all modes and the tone quality is pretty excellent when compared alongside many other similar radios. AM and SSB sound particularly rich with no distortion and the FM mode is also excellent for those countries that use it (most of the European regions). Yeticom have added per and de-emphasis to FM to give the best possible sound quality possible so nice to find a radio that is truly global in its appeal. Many radios are designed for just the American market and little attention paid to FM audio quality since it is not commonly used in these regions. The Optima was designed to be an “FM Monster” from day one.
Signal wise the Optima worked very well hearing stations that were only just audible on other radios such as the Superstar 158-EDX. The sensitivity seemed very good in all modes and whilst I was testing the radio mobile I was fortunate to hear Brazil (3 division) on 11m coming through like a local station thanks to some good propagation in the late afternoon. I managed to capture a YouTube video of this and you’ll be able to see my video review there to hear the Optima in action. The Optima features the usual RF gain control that you would expect on a radio like this and I’ m pleased to report that even local or strong stations didn’t sound distorted as they do on some radios so the automatic AGC is working well and no issues there.
The 11 meter band can be a very crowded place at times when the DX starts to roll in. Many transceivers in this class range lack adequate filtering to deal with strong adjacent signals due to keeping costs down at the design stages. The Optima is again, an exception to the rule as the designers have thoughtfully provided a second IF crystal filter which comes into it’s own on SSB. You may have noticed an LED light on the right hand side of the radio between the Squelch/Power Control and the VFO knob, the legend “filter In” is shown next to this. To invoke the second IF filter you press and hold down the clarifier control for about 3 seconds. The radio will beep and the “Filter In” light will illuminate in amber. The first change I noticed with the extra filter activated was a drop in the signal levels being received and I needed to turn the volume somewhat higher but the clarity of the signals under difficult band conditions were improved and splatter from adjacent high power stations could be avoided more effectively. The only thing I didn’t really like about the filter was the method of activation. To hold the clarifier down for 3 seconds is somewhat more tricky than it sounds. It also runs the risk of knocking yourself off frequency in the process. That said, Yeticom are looking into the possibility of moving this secondary function to one of the other function keys on the front panel out of the way.
So far I’ve not really mentioned the microphone supplied with the Optima. This is a very small lightweight device that on face value you wouldn’t think would work satisfactorily. The reality of this is that the radio has “big audio” straight out of the box with the standard mic. The legend “Phantom Powered” on the microphone gives a clue as to why the radio sounds so good on air in all modes. This is a powered condenser microphone and the reports I had back whilst testing were extremely promising. The SSB audio was clear and punchy with the correct level of bass and treble whilst the FM sounded pretty similar with plenty of punchy audio even while holding the mic quite far away from the mouth. I have read some comments that suggest the FM deviation is low on this radio but it’s been designed for a maximum of 2.5 KHz bandwidth to comply with regulations. I do believe the audio sounds superb as it stands and it’s how the FM mode should be. The microphone is equipped with up and down keys on the top for use while mobile. These increment the transceiver in any of the use defined step ranges so very useful when driving and not having to pay too much attention to the radio. The other unique aspect of the Optima is the eight pin microphone socket. Instead of being some bizarre wiring configuration the radio has adopted the Icom 8 pin standard meaning any Icom wired microphone can be readily accepted without too much fuss. I didn’t have any other microphone available to test this function but I have been assured that it works fine with desk mics wired in the Icom standard. If you are tempted to wire your own microphone just be mindful that voltage is present in the socket and incorrect wiring could cause a direct short and cause damage to the radio.
One of the best things about the Optima is the size of the radio. It’s a lot smaller than many other 10m rigs and should be less hassle to mount in todays smaller vehicles. The radio also uses a quick release two pin block power connector so can be easily removed when not in use. For night time use the Optima has some excellent backlit controls. The illumination around the main controls and LCD display is provided by bright white LEDs making this radio look different from almost every other transceiver out there considering most of them are using Blue and Amber illumination these days. I found this gave a very easy to read display in the dark but without dazzling too much. As far as I am aware there is only one level of back lighting available and it cannot be turned off but I don’t really consider this an issue.
A final word on the Optima features concerns the memory functions and scanning. The Optima has 5 handy memories that you could preset with your favourite calling channels. Not only do these memories store the frequency but they also store the mode used. I found this incredibly useful for quickly jumping around the bands and saving a lot of key presses. For example I have the USB calling channel 27.555 USB programmed into memory one and in memory two I have the UK FM channel 19 programmed here. I can then tune off from the memory to adjacent channels without having to press the mode button as the mode has already been set for me. A real time saver. You could also program memory on a low or high frequency to help save a lot of VFO turning. The other great thing that the Optima can do is scan these memory channels. Other similar radios cannot offer this function (eg Magnum 257) and they just scan the complete band. Scanning is invoked by pressing the function key and button 4.
The Optima is an excellent radio that promises better performance than similar transceivers and it delivers. The small and subtle changes that have been made to this radio become apparent the more that you use it. Having used the Optima for a couple of weeks it would now make it difficult to go back to an “out of the box” Magnum 257 or similar as some of the functionality would be missing that you now take for granted having used this radio. I have been most impressed by the audio or both transmit and receive, not to mention the frequency stability compared to other 10m radios. The substantial heat sink and fan keeps the MOSFET outputs under control and defies the trend of radios with large outputs that heat up so quickly. I would have no hesitation in recommending this radio to fellow operators around the world looking for something a bit more special than the run of the mill stuff. The Optima is produced in small batches, therefore quality control is greater as it’s not a mass production model. It also gives Yeticom the opportunity to build upon what they already have and continue to make improvements to their radios.
I would like to thank Dave at Yeticom in Indonesia for supplying the radio to me in a record breaking 48 hours, direct from the factory all the way from Hong Kong! You can read more about the Optima by visiting the Yeticom Website at: http://www.survival-systems.com/yeticom/
For those people reading the review and thinking that I maybe work for Yeticom or am promoting their product, I should also point out that the rig I have reviewed was actually purchased by me, it was not a freebie and I even ended up paying tax when it landed in the UK. I’m just genuinely thrilled with the radio after using so many other 10m rigs that were a disappointment despite the high price. Sure the Magnum 257 is cheaper than the Optima but you are paying a premium to get a radio that has been reworked to be a little less “run of the mill” than others and the time spent on making the radio better is apparent from the first time you operate one.
If you would like the user manual for the radio and full specification you can also grab that here.
Check out the YouTube Video below of the Optima in action listening to Brazil