Flex Maestro – Uber Cool!
I have been awaiting the arrival of Maestro since it was first announced at Dayton 2015. Back then it was a 3D printed cased unit with some wonky knobs and rough software but the concept was there and I, like many, ordered one!
So what is Maestro?
Well to put it simply, a PC’less control panel for a Flex 6000 series SDR radio, that comes with a 10.8″ touchscreen, WiFi capable, some super smooth ‘VFO’ knobs and a whole lot of cool!
Mine arrived recently and although we have been moving QTH the past weeks, I did get a chance to have some time trying it out and have not been disappointed.
The latest generation of SDR’s from Flex are the Flex 6000 series of SDR’s and these are very different than early models of SDR in that all the heavy lifting is done inside the radio and the only data sent to the PC is control panel data and audio. This means the previous problems of poor CW performance due to CPU latency or lack of bandwidth between PC and SDR has been removed in one stroke of genius.
Now a PC controlled SDR is something that seems to bring a love hate relationship out in people!
To control a Flex 6000 series radio before Maestro would use a PC to run the control software, SmartSDR (SSDR). I have been using a small fanless PC from China to run my pair of Flex 6500’s and combined with FlexControl, a USB control knob, this has worked very well with SSDR.
Despite this the war of words over ‘Knobbed radio vs soft panel’ has been raging on forums and Maestro seems to be the answer from Flex to woo those who absolutely MUST have a knobbed radio.
The Maestro acts as a control surface for SSDR using either a wired LAN connection, or alternatively, via WiFi on either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. I have been using mine on both and its safe to say there is still a few rough edges around handling of WiFi but Flex are working through these and I have no doubt that they will fixed or updated as new releases come round.
Ergonomically, Maestro has been designed with input from some of the world’s best contesters and has been put together to give the easiest access to core functions needed for DX’ing or for contesting. That’s not to say it’s not useful for rag chewing or just band browsing, as you can tailor some buttons to your own preferences too.
The screen is absolutely beautiful and very crisp and clear. It’s based on a Windows 10 embedded device too so underneath is a Win10 PC and that allows many of the same hand gestures to be used, as you would on a PC.
The controls are smooth, with no wobble, the ‘VFO’ knobs are silky, weighted and great to use. Although I refer to these as VFO knobs, SSDR refers to a receiver as a ‘slice’ and on the PC version of SSDR you can have 4 of these running on a Flex 6500. On a Flex 6700 that’s a whopping 8 slices, yes 8 separate receivers. On the smaller screen of Maestro you can have two panadapters running at the same time and I used them to follow some DX stations across 2 bands at the same time, looking at 2 pileups at the same time.
Maestro isn’t small, or light, but it won’t wander across the desk. It does have a slot in the back for a USB power brick. You will get about 4-5 hours on a battery so a couple would do you the day out in the field.
I’ll definitely be getting a second one for the other SSDR and I have been mightily impressed.
I will be integrating this as part of the new shack which will focus more on IP connected devices. Maestro is the tip of the iceberg for Flex, as they recently released an IP controlled 2 x 8 antenna switch in partnership with Ranko, 4O3A. Also on show at Dayton 2016 was an IP controlled 1.5KW solid state amplifier using 2 x BLF188’s. An SO2R controller is also due for announcement later this year, which will provide the building bricks for an IP controlled HF contest station.
The IC-7300 might have created some interest for those who have never owned an SDR before, but the Flex 6000 series are way out in front in performance and station integration capabilities and the next 12 months will see some fantastic new IP enabled radio accessories coming.
Keep watching and as I will be posting more info on my station build as I progress over the months.
73 Simon ZL4PLM