With so many radios out there, this can be a confusing question for all radio amateurs. Newcomers wish for ease of operation, while contesters and serious DX'er require top performance. And don't forget affordability. A good start is to read past and present ARRL Product Reviews. You would need to be a member of the ARRL to access this info so we have posted some helpful info here.
DMR, Fusion, D-Star, Dual band, tri bad, which band, what about 220? Is anyone on 12 anymore? Isn’t SDR always better than analog? what about an amp? There are a lot of things to consider. While this guide probably won’t be able to answer all of your questions, we’ll try to narrow a few things down for you to make it a little easier.
First off, the big one; budget. This hobby isn’t the cheapest thing in the world. You CAN do it with a small budget, but if you just go out and buy the newest baofeng HT and think you’re good to go for anything, you might be a little disappointed and end up not even using it much.
If you are resourceful and enjoy making your own electronic gadgets, you might try to save a few dollars by getting a broken radio, or one that needs some TLC. Be wary, though. Newer HT’s and Mobile radios are almost impossible to work on past the basic issues (finals and wiring) and can leave with with a pile of unusable assets.
What can really save you the most money is not skimping on the radio, but making your own antenna’s. For $50 and a trip to Lowes, you can make yourself one heck of a nice antenna, even one that can work a few different bands without the use of a balun.
Our overall recommendation when talking budget is this: don’t cheap out on the radio or coax; cheap out on the pre-built antenna’s and build your own and, if needed, a tuner. We can always help you with this as well!
If at all possible, stay away from RG-58 coax. Though, 58 is better than nothing at all. Its losses at almost any frequency can be enough to miss that DX you’ve been wanting to work.
The HT problem:
Many amateurs start their career in VHF/UHF and stay there. There is definitely nothing wrong with that (though we encourage you to upgrade and discover HF), but it can still be a little disappointing of a hobby if every time you try to get into a repeater you get told “we can’t hear you, try going outside or running more power.” Here in lies the issues with all of those cheap HT’s you see. Power and antenna.
HT’s use antenna’s that are often already compromises antenna’s. Meaning that, though they have good SWR, they aren’t necessarily resonant. Combine that with only having 5 watts, you can star to see the issue. On top of all that, many people want to operate inside their homes, leading to even more obstacles that the waves must work through and ultimately lose power from. Finally, living several miles away from the repeater adds a distance challenge for almost anyone.
Add these all up and you may find your HT’s 5 watts is only just barely making 1/4 watt to the repeater and thus not keeping it open or clear enough to be understood. Don’t get us wrong, you don’t need high power to talk to the repeaters. 5 watts is more than enough in most cases, but with a good quality outdoor antenna, high up with good quality low loss coax. At that point, you might as well have invested a few extra dollars into a mobile radio at home and work all the repeaters around!
While HT’s are an excellent choice for many applications, don’t let the above scenario discourage you from this great hobby. Nothing is ever perfect and stations are always changing to improve their communication abilities. An outdoor resonant antenna is the best way forward for almost any situation.
New Vs. Used and where to go:
The simple fact is, you can get a better deal (more bang for your buck) by going used, even on equipment that isn’t that old. The trick is to be cautious while doing this. Hamfests are a great way to find used equipment. QRZ.com and eHam.net are also both great places to find used equipment that have multiple levels of security to help prevent against fraud. Stack that on with a paypal account and its very low risk!
Though, there is nothing quite like opening up a brand new radio and knowing you have a warranty with it. Its hard to beat a new radio and you can get them reliably at places like hamradio.com and dxengineering.com
What makes and models?
You can’t go wrong with most models of the big three; Yaesu, Icom and Kenwood.
There are other brands that have been known to have good products, but sometimes are hit and miss, such as; Baofeng, Wouxun, TYT, Hytera and many, many more.
Many times though, such as the case with Alinco, you can find a used version of the big 3, with many more features, for the same price as the new one you are looking at.
So, what are a few radios i should be looking for new and used?
Well, lets break this down into a couple of categories. Yaesu is a very well known company in the public safety two way radio world. Yaesu is the brand of repeater used by the EARS club. So it makes a good choice for getting into the Fusion digital. However, as mentioned above, a good well known radio from any of the big 3 is a pretty low risk.
At this time, especially if you are new to the hobby, we recommend staying away from older radios (more than 25 years old) due to the possibility of electrolytic capacitor degradation and the learning curve of tuning “hybrid” (that’s tube and solid state, not gas and electric) radios while you are still trying to get used to many other aspects of the hobby.
As mentioned above the club repeaters and many repeaters in the area are Yaesu Fusion repeaters. If you have no preference I would strongly recommend a Yaesu FTM-400, FTM-300 or FTM-7250DR. These are all C4FM/FM 144/430MHz Dual-Band Digital Mobile
50W C4FM/FM Dual-Band Digital capable radios.
This category is actually a bit easier than the VHF/UHF as most radios today come with the same types of features, they are just called different things. These are the top 5 used radios under $1000 on the market today and about what you can expect to find them for on a good day. These are in no particular order:
- Yaesu FT-991a – Fantastic "shack-in-a-box radio that can be found for around $1000 on most days.
- Yaesu FTdx1200 – Another great radio that is the newer version of the FT-950. you can find these for around $750 on a good day.
- Icom 7300 – Though it has no parametric EQ like the Yaesu rigs, this is a fantastic SDR rig that won’t break the bank either. You can have them for around $1000 on most days used. This also has a USB port built in for digital modes.
- Icom 746 Pro – Though a little dated now, its still a good solid radio. These can usually be found for around $600. As a bonus, it has 2 meter and 440 built in as well!
- Kenwood TS-590SG – One of the best starter rigs on the market that is great for even the extra class guy too! A bonus for this rig is the built in USB port for digital modes.
For new HF rigs, its hard to beat the FTdx3000 or the Icom 7300. Though, for a radio that can do it all, at a little bit of loss in features, the FT-991A is a fantastic rigl!