AES 10, SGC -2

About four years ago I bought an SG-211 QRP autotuner on eBay.  The unit worked OK for about a year, though it was often dumber than a bag of rocks.  It always had difficulty finding a match on 80 meters and many times it had difficulty matching the simplest antennas.  It could load up the proverbial bedsprings for an antenna, but place a 50 ohm dummy load on it and the unit couldn't find a match to save its life.  Also, it would often retune for no reason in the middle of a QSO, despite already matching the antenna.  (This would require religious use of the tuner "lock" switch.)

After using the tuner for about year, one camping trip it stopped tuning altogether.  I popped it open and the PIC chip was hot and the tuner was down for the count.  In disgust I tossed the SG-211 in a closet for a year and forgot about it.  I decided to give the tuner another chance and sent it to SGC to have it repaired for the flat $55 rate.  Reading online reviews, I figured the unit might tune better with new firmware which was probably updated since this unit was manufactured.  I got the SG-211 back about two months later; the tech said the PIC was bad and they ended up replacing the whole circuit board with a reworked board.  Upon getting it back I tested it with the FT-817 and it couldn't find a match on any band with any antenna.  The "reworked" board was a mess.  You could tell someone spent a lot of time messing with this board when they were repairing it; it looked like it had been through a war.  There were cold solder joints on the antenna terminals and on many of the matching network capacitors.  I sent the unit back to SGC again and in a few more weeks it was repaired.  The tech said a relay was burnt, probably from high power.  I never had the unit connected to anything other than the FT-817 which runs only five watts.  I got the unit back and it worked, though it still can't tune its way out of paper bag when connected to a 50 ohm load and it takes forever to find a match on several bands.

Fast forward a year later.  I'm looking for a remote antenna tuner for a 100 watt setup so I can get rid of open ladder line coming into the shack.  I had been working on a homebrew remote balanced antenna tuner for some time, but it's obvious I'm not going to complete the project in the next decade, so I'm just going to break down and buy a commercial unit.  I look at Icom's remote tuner and it looks like you have to mate this with an Icom rig, so I shy away from it.  MFJ offers a unit, though from the reviews it sounds like one of their indoor autotuners thrown into an outdoor box.  I like MFJ to an extent, but you just never know what the solder job is going to look like inside any of their products and I don't want to risk it with an outdoor unit.  SGC offers the SG-237 which is in a nice package and gets good reviews.  After my experience with the SG-211, I'm not sure why I did it, but I went ahead and bought one.  Call me stupid, but I thought I would give a "Made in America" company a second chance.  The unit arrived and I hooked it up to my 60m dipole fed with ladder line.  It tunes most of the bands fairly well, but on 80 meters it can't find a match anywhere.  Grumble.  I mounted the tuner outside in an enclosure as its permanent home and shortened the ladder line.  Then it would match on the lower end of 80m, but it was still befuddled with the middle and high end.  I futzed around adding sections of ladder line and after several iterations it would begrudgingly match the entire band though it would often need coaxing from the bottom of the band up through to get a match on the top end.  So it worked "good enough".

Fast forward a week later.  I had been on a business trip for a week, and I came back and connect up the power to the remote tuner.  I key up on several bands and I can tell the remote tuner isn't trying to match at all.  Grumble.  I go outside to troubleshoot it.  Everything is connected correctly and the unit is getting power.  I disassembled the outdoor setup, brought it inside, connected it up on the bench and it indeed won't tune at all.  I popped the tuner open and it's definitely sensing RF but it doesn't sense any SWR, so it thinks everything is hunky-dorey, no need to tune.  No burn marks and nothing popped inside, so I've got a doorstop that lights an LED.

I contacted SGC over email and spent several days troubleshooting the unit.  After getting to the limit of what we could do over email they said to return it for repair or talk with AES where I bought it and see if they would exchange it.  Having experienced SGC's glacial repair speeds before, I called up AES and spoke to the service department.  The guy there didn't even ask for any details like my account or order number, he said just box it up, send it in and they'll get a new one out to me.  I did just that and AES shipped a new unit rather quickly.

The new SGC unit works, but I'm afraid to do much with it.  After such a bad experience with two different models, this unit is likely going to be used only for Field Day and other select outings, and I'll always have a backup manual tuner around.  I certainly won't put it into permanent use.

I have to give kudos to AES for their outstanding service over the years.  I've never been disappointed with them.
Anthony Good, K3NG, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Pennsylvania, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

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