Now that I have a couple of QRP radios, especially the very capable mcHF, I became more interested in amplifier options to boost my power output when the need arises. I also wanted to build the amp myself to add to my collection of kit built equipment. After looking around, I decided to go with the HobbyPCB HARDROCK-50 Amplifier and ATU.
At $300 for the amplifier and another $180 for the tuner this is not the most economical kit, however, this is a very full featured amplifier and the antenna tuner adds a lot of additional functionality. The amplifier can be driven by a PTT signal or a carrier and also features rig interfacing with some QRP radios for automatic band switching. Both the amplifier and tuner can be inline or bypassed. This is a great feature since the tuner can be used with your radio at QRP levels when you don’t need to use the amp. It is also a very wide range tuner, covering roughly a 10:1 SWR range. The tuner board also adds 60 meter band and standalone Watt/SWR meter functionality.
The kits themselves are very well put together with well made boards (pre-populated with surface mount components) and good quality components. The case is super rugged and all of the machining and fit and finish were very well done. I really like that the amp is completely air cooled and should only require a fan under extreme circumstances. The instructions (HR-50, ATU) are also very well put together with lots of pictures and a ton of detail to step you through the assembly, calibration, and operation of the amplifier.
The amplifier section took about 7 hours to build and calibrate. Most of this involves soldering all the components (including all 15 relays) as well as winding and mounting the 14 inductors. The auto-tuner board took another 3 hours to assemble. This board is almost entirely relays (17) and inductors (9). Integrating the two boards together is very straightforward. It’s a testament to the design of these kits that you can build the amplifier as a standalone kit and then add the auto-tuner later and only have to modify one coax connection.
These kits have been around for a few years and various corrections and bugs have been ironed out, so my kits didn’t require any hardware mods and came pre-loaded with the current firmware revisions. The amp’s screen displays the hardware, amp firmware, and ATU firmware versions on boot-up.
Once everything is running the screen displays the current keying mode, the band selected, heatsink temperature, and power supply voltage. When the amp is keyed the LED turns red and the display shows a bargraph of power output as well as the SWR and output power in PEP. To initiate the auto-tuner you press the Key Mode button after keying the amplifier.
In order to integrate the amp with my mcHF I adjusted the full power setting of the radio from 10 watts output to 2-4 watts output depending on the band. This was done to provide the appropriate drive level for 50 watts out of the amplifier. Using this setup I tuned around the bands and found a Belgian station calling CQ on 80 meters and received a good signal report when I responded to him. Not a bad first contact. I look forward to using this amp and tuner more in the future especially with my mcHF since I am no longer limited to QRP operating.