What you need to know: for 50 dollars, get the same performance as a dedicated shortwave receiver, easier to use with better sound quality. Recommended.
HF Upconverter SDR Up 100
Works by adding 125 MHz to the signal received, so your RTL stick will understand signals below 30 Mhz. It also has a filter, so signals above 55 MHz will not bother your reception.
Costs 40 euros / 50 USD delivered to your door, delivery to Ireland took 5 days. You pay for the item via PayPal when it arrives, so no worries for shipping.
It is physically small, about the size of a Zippo lighter. Antenna IN and antenna OUT connectors are SMA female.
Amplification is built-in, automatically increases the received signal 63 times (18dB). It is so effective gain in SDRSharp must be set very precisely, even one move on the control panel will kill all received signals (called overload).
Power is supplied via two pins, in the bubble wrap envelope an A4 page shows schematics, so you can identify positive and negative. Soldering and antenna connectors are first-rate, looks and feels solid. In over six weeks of testing and after connecting antennas many times there is no play, no movement.
Works with 9 to 15 volts, so a brick 9V battery or a 12 V car battery works. Manufacturer says 50mA draw, real-life mobile performance is 7-8 hours from an unbranded 9V battery. There is no visual indicator, no LED to show if power is OK, battery dies = stops working.
At home I power it with a dedicated car 12V battery. No top-up charge for the last six weeks - still works OK.
6 meter (20 foot) wire from a window, connected to coax cable - Upconverter - RTL stick. City center location, electrically very noisy.
Noise reduction as per the precious entry on this blog, ferrites on the coax going to the antenna wire.
Automatic Gain control turned off in SDRSharp, set in Configuration between 2-5.
Set the frequency at 125 MHz plus the frequency of interest, so 132 MHz displayed will be 7 MHz.
Sampling rate at 1.024 MSPS so I see 1 MHz chunk of the radio spectrum. Broadcasting signals are continuous, easily identifiable from the waterfall display.
Digital Noise Reduction is your friend with strong stations: click on a peak or line in the waterfall display, set pleasurable noise limit, get astonishing voice quality.
No number crunching here; I go by my ears. All the usual players come in easily, propaganda from Radio China International, Voice of Russia / America / Korea etc are like FM broadcast. You do not have to turn a dial or remember a setting - save the frequency, set noise reduction and enjoy.
Tired of speech? Ethnic music from the Middle East, religious programming from the States, man hitting stuff with kitchen utensils from the Far East all booming in. I have the adapter for over six weeks, still every night I sit down with expectation and a "what next?" attitude - the ease and accessibility, combined with easy station saving rekindled my interest in shortwave.
Filtering works, the strongest local FM station barely audible when tuned.
Looking for distant signals? With only a 6 meter wire I got understandable speech from the Caribbean, Caribbean Beacon from Anguilla on 6090 kHz.
Fun for a long time; Morse code and digital mode transmissions are a possibility, if you're into fiddling with software. For HF Fax I recommend JVComm32, thought NOAA satellites at 137 MHz are more colorful.
Standalone vs software defined - price, usability, fun
Standalone: 80-100 USD for a good one, 200 is top-of-the-range, 5000+ USD for pro equipment. With bargain basement 20 USD wonders you buy frustration.
RTL stick advantages: huge screen to see signals, easier tuning, better speech quality.
Standalone radio advantages: compact and portable solution, works off cheap batteries, no learning curve. Turning dials instead of clicking a mouse, more intimate "what-comes-next" feel.
Buy a shortwave adapter if you're happy with computer-based solutions or you need to use capabilities for a goal, e.g. Weather charts or decoding digital modes.
The best is both: get this upconverter for home, especially if you have suitable space for antennas, and enjoy your portable while out and about.
Direct competition is Nooelec's Ham-It-Up upconverter for the same price, thought the Nooelec one has a pass-through switch so you only have to connect a different antenna (or use an antenna switch) for frequencies above 30 MHz. Watch this space, I have one on order for a direct comparison.
Around 70 USD you'll get upconverters with two or three antenna inputs.
100 USD and up RTL stick and shortwave adaptor integrated into a USB stick, but I think at this point the primary advantage of software defined radio (Price) disappears.
200 USD buys a stick (Funcube Dongle Pro) for all signals this side of microwave, better performance then an RTL stick (at 15x cost) and no hassle with drivers.
For half the price of a good shortwave receiver the same performance on your laptop - you give up buttons and tactile feel, and gain ease of use and accessibility.
The number of broadcasting stations, amateur operators and digital modes on shortwave is staggering; for the 50 USD admission fee you get an easy-to use adapter with good performance. On expensive and dedicated shortwave receivers the frequency display screen and the buttons are small; with this setup I can see 1 MHz worth of signals in Full HD.