Let’s Dump RS(T) Signal Reports!

How much use is a signal report – really? In theory it is a good idea to tell the ham at the other end of the magic, invisible wire how well you are receiving their signal. In practice the report you send is of little to no use whatsoever. Why is that? I can cite several reasons.

No T Bene!

Let’s start with an easy one. For CW operators (among whom I count myself) the signal report includes R (Readability), S (Signal strength) and T (Tone). Most modern ham rigs produce a stable tone. This hasn’t always been the case though. Older vacuum tube rigs, for various reasons, often produced warbly, wonky tones. I actually enjoy listening to older rigs as their audio drifts up and down. It adds an extra little challenge to copying their signal. But then I still send their report as, for example, RST 599. The T is always a 9. After thousands of CW QSOs I can’t recall hearing a single Tone report other than 9, so out the window it goes.

The Boat Anchor Brigade are probably sticking pins in graven images of me already, but hold on, there’s more. The R – on a scale of 1 to 5 – and the S – on a scale of 1 to 9 are also on my defenestration list.

Let’s pause a minute and define what the RST signal report system is and how to use it. ARRL is the body credited with defining the RST signal report system in their “operating aids”. That august and respected body defines “R” as describing how easy it is to copy the other station’s signal on a scale of 1 to 5:

  1. Unreadable
  2. Barely readable, occasional words distinguishable
  3. Readable with considerable difficulty
  4. Readable with practically no difficulty
  5. Perfectly readable

Radios do not have a R-meter so the R component of a signal report is purely subjective. I have partial hearing loss (I blame an Emerson Lake and Palmer concert I attended in 1972). When I am in conversation with my wife I often have to give her a 2 for readability as a reminder to make allowances for my condition. If I sent a 2 as part of a signal report during a QSO the other party might wonder what was wrong with their signal and start checking the settings on their radio.

But it is the “S” in the report which causes me the greatest ire. ARRL defines S (Signal strength) as follows:

  1. Faint—signals barely perceptible
  2. Very weak signals
  3. Weak signals
  4. Fair signals
  5. Fairly good signals
  6. Good signals
  7. Moderately strong signals
  8. Strong signals
  9. Extremely strong signals

Okay, that sounds reasonable enough, except there are probably too many choices. The perceived signal strength is also affected by the settings of the receiving station’s RF and AF gain controls – and also, of course, by the battery voltage in their hearing aids. ARRL helps resolve the subjectivity by suggesting the use of the radio’s S-meter. Well, let’s play with that idea for a cotton-pickin’ minute!

Well Tickle My Whiskers!

At my home QTH there is so much noise entering my rig that my S-meter rarely shows less than S9. There are more wall-warts, LED lights, electronic thermostats and other evil genius gadgets in my home than you can shake a hamstick at. So you want a “real” signal report? You better come in over S9 ’cause that’s the lowest report I can give you. When did ARRL last take a serious look at their RST operating aid? Was it back when folks were tickling galena crystals with cat’s whiskers?

When I am out in the Big Blue Sky Shack, far away from all the spurious RF emissions of the myriad devices that keep our modern world ticking, my S-meter barely moves. To be perfectly honest, some of my field portable rigs only have an LCD bar graph instead of an S-meter. Some don’t even have that. “Your report is 2 cos I’m kinda deaf and two – no make that two and a half bars, eh?”

Your Wet Noodle Report is …

During a recent POTA activation I was puzzled to receive two completely different RST reports from stations in the same state. The first gave me a 599 and the second – just a couple of minutes later – gave me a 449. How was I to use those reports to determine how well my signal was reaching that part of the world? Maybe the first station had a Yagi at the top of a fifty foot tower while the second station was using a wet noodle.

Parks On The Air does not require signal reports to be included in activation logs. Hallelujah! Some POTA activators don’t even record signal reports in their logs. I have been including them – it is optional – but may no longer do so.

“Gimme your call again. Again? One more time? … 59 QRZ”

Almost every contest requires an RST report to be included in the log. Try sending a “real” signal report during a contest and you will reveal yourself to be a contest rookie. You must always send “59(9) – that is what is expected. So why bother? Why waste the bandwidth sending redundant information?

Hams seem to be wedded to the RST system and weaning them off the practice may take a long time. If you feel the need to send a signal report why not use a more useful system like Q1 – Q5 where Q1 means “I’m deaf as a post and can hardly hear you” and Q5 means “Whoa, you just blew the shingles off my roof!”

That’s my 2 cents worth; how copy?

10 thoughts on “Let’s Dump RS(T) Signal Reports!

  1. My friend Bruce, N7RR has been championed this cause for years and has proposed some alternatives. You can probably find them online.


  2. I’ve never really thought about it before…but now that I have…you make so much sense, sir..We just need someone to come up with an alternative..On phone, “I can just make you out over the local noise” is fine..We just need something for CW..Certainly ‘food for thought’ as we say in the UK…


    1. Thanks for the comment John. I am well familiar with UK expressions; I spent the first 29 years of my life there. I have grown long-in-the-tooth over many more years spent here in Canada.


      1. …your article took me back to my early years of ham radio listening from around 1956. For many years, many CW signals from Europe had a ‘C’ at the end of their ‘RST’..and frequently the ‘T’ number was less than 9!..So much gear was home brewed then,(Isn’t that how it was meant to be?)..and I remember occasionally being able to recognise a station by a combination of fist, chirp and ripple, long before a call sign was sent..’Happy days’…hi…..73..John..G4EIJ


  3. As a new ham, I discovered that I could turn the internal pre-amps on or off in my Yaesu 991A (which are on by default), I realized that the signal reports I was giving were completely arbitrary. Worse yet, if I turned my preamps off most hams wouldn’t be terribly happy with the report I gave them, especially the ones running a FlexRadio and a SteppIR.


    1. Thanks for the comment David. Yaesu gives the following advice on use of the IPO (Intercept Point Optimization; i.e. RF gain) function:
      “On the bands below 14MHz the input preamplifier is rarely necessary and activation of the IPO feature will provide substantial protection against intermodulation and other problems associated with strong signal input to the receiver. Rule of thumb: so long as the S-meter is moving on background noise, additional front-end gain is not necessary.”


      1. Thanks for the reply, and the tip, John! I wanted to share in your concern with the S-unit portion of the report, as you’d mentioned S-unit report is configuration and shack environment dependent. For example, turning on the built-in pre-amps can move a received signal from S3 to 10 over for me.


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