First of all this article will not provide you with a definitive answer as there are a host of variables that need to be considered which may include
- Are you looking for a long Warranty?
- Are you looking for a serviceable radio?
- Wanting to build your own Transceiver?
- Portable ready for SOTA/WWFF/IOTA/POTA?
- Do you want a radio with an Antenna Tuning Unit built in?
- Are you looking for a radio with large screen and easy to use controls?
- Are you after a “shack in a box” – A radio that does VHF and UHF as well?
- Are you after an SDR model with the Waterfall display?
These are only a few, questions that will have an input into your decision, but they are some of the big ones. There is no right or wrong as it will change for each person.
This paragraph was added a year later after I wrote the original article, and it was important to add it as there is an extreme shortage of Amateur Transceivers and most other related parts including, Antenna’s, Coax switches, SWR tools coming into Australia. These issue is worldwide, but more pronounced in Australia. In fact it so bad that some resellers have closed up shops as they don’t have the stock for walk in clients, and preferring to sell just online (at least for the moment).
Basically radios like the Icom 7300, Icom 705, Icom 7100 and Yaesu FT-10DX and many other radios that sit nicely that sweet spot of pricing of value for money, especially for the newcomer, have been out of stock for 6 months or more, or have had large back orders, meaning they are out of stock again within a day or two of arriving.
So your choice of HF rig, if you are looking to purchase at the moment, may be not exactly the one you went looking for, and you should consider this, by researching an alternative model (especially if it is 4-5 months off before units are back in Australia. We are all being told that 2023 will be the year that things will get back to normal, and in fact the whole electronics industry is quoting this as a guide, but it will be a case of wait and watch.
One of the biggest questions will come down to budget. Are you looking to spend a few hundred dollars or can you afford $AU1000 or can you stretch a little further to $AU2000.
Typically at the moment in Australia, between $AU300 and $AU1100 you are looking at a radio made in China by Chinese Manufacturers. Now that is not necessarily the worst thing in the world, but you are going to have to do some real research, otherwise you could be wasting your money. You will need to look at the reviews (and not necessarily the ones on the website you are buying from) from fellow hams.
Brand names such as ICOM and Yaesu are made in Japan. They might have batteries made in China, but the radio itself is generally designed and made in Japan. There are other well known commercial brands that are manufactured in China, however the company stands behind in their product in quality and serviceability.
From about $1100, you are now in the brand name territory. with $AU1400 – $AU2000 being the expected amount for the more common models.
From this point, they can continue up to $AU20000 at which point you really need to check whether you are getting value for money in terms of quality, features, warranty, and whether you can actually use it. If you are restricted with land space, HOA restrictions, excessive EMI, close power lines, then putting that sort of money into a transceiver is not going to be a great investment. That sort of money would be better spent on a “Shack in a box” that you can take in the car and go to parks or summits, and really enjoy amateur radio and the great outdoors
We will look at the popular radios for HF in 2020/2021 a little further into this article.
This goes pretty well hand in hand with the brand names. Chinese manufacturers will generally offer the normal 12 months warranty, however if you order your radio direct from China, you will probably be put through the hoops, which includes freighting it back to China, long delays in getting it returned, and if anything more than a simple issue, language barriers are going to play a large part in your success or frustration.
Your best bet if buying a Chinese manufactured radio is to buy through a local distributor or through Amazon. However, before you put your money down, you need to confirm what the warranty arrangements are. Who it needs to go back to, who is paying the costs. It may even come down to costs, you might feel that this will be your first HF radio and you are happy to accept the possibility, you might only get a year or two out of your $AU650 purchase…that’s up to you.
However, if you want something with a 2 to 5 year warranty, a local distributor that will look after the warranty, then you might need to look at the brand names that sit in the higher price bracket.
This is something that should be considered, particularly if your HF Transceiver has a short warranty. To be fair, this is something that is affecting all radio manufacturers with very few using discreet parts anymore. This is actually more apparent as many radios manufacturers are moving into the SDR space with many using the latest “radio on a chip” or FPGA technology to get around chip shortages.
Other radios are using firmware that is encrypted, and only decrypts on the radio, so there is limited opportunities for improvements to be done and this will hinder serviceability by the general public.
Particularly with the Chinese Manufactured transceivers, if you break something (or let the magic smoke out) that your unit is good for throwing out or at best being used for parts for other units. For this reason, you will find very few places or people will be willing to spend the time trying to service it, knowing that they may not be able to get the parts and have no real access to schematics or support, and also cannot charge for something that is not fixed.
Build your Own Transceiver?
This is going to come down to two main criteria
- Do you want the satisfaction of building it yourself?
- Do you have budget constraints?
Over the last 10 or so years, there has never been more opportunities to find a transceiver that meets your budget. With radio kits becoming more affordable, and coming with more features than their predecessors, they are attractive for the budget conscious.
On the “build your own” side of things, for a serious tilt at HF communications as a minimum, you are looking at spending between $AU200 and $AU300. However, don’t base your decision on price alone. Take a several weeks or more looking at the product, its capabilities, check forums and find everything you can, even where to buy it from.
Especially in the last couple of years, Chinese manufacturers / Sellers are copying kits, kits that are clearly marked as “not for commercial use”, and selling them with no compensation to the original designer, and in many cases using inferior components or worst still changing the design of the product to meet their parts inventories or meeting a cost (and they won’t offer any support). In some cases this is making the kit worthless and will impact on your enjoyment of the hobby. So if you are going to buy a kit, try and get it from the original author/designer, and just because its on Ebay doesn’t mean it its not from China with many of these sellers, even when they say they are in Australia, are just Chinese sellers doing drop-ship.
If trying to get a low cost kit becomes a minefield, you are not alone, even the experienced buyer can get burnt. If you are in this position, seek assistance from others, this is one area that is worth asking others. Worst case, drop the idea, save a little more money and go for a commercial transceiver.
If you do go for a transceiver as a kit, you at least have the schematic and generally it will be using discrete parts which you can replace if they get damaged either during the build or in actual operation.
Portable, ready for SOTA/WWFF/IOTA/POTA?
This is going to be big consideration, particularly if you plan to do a lot of SOTA or WWFF work.
Two of the popular brand names for SOTA/POTA/WWFF work is the Yaesu FT817 or FT818 and the Elecraft KX3, with slightly heavier rigs such as Yaesu FT857 and FT897 also being in favour. But you do not necessarily remain with the brand names, as Xiegu G90 (Chinese) has made a name for itself as a SOTA / POTA rig.
One of considerations for a portable rig is the inclusion of a built in Antenna Tuner unit, which makes it easier throwing up a quick antenna. This is why the Xiegu G90 is popular with its built in Antenna Tuner, otherwise with many other rigs, you need the separate tuner.
Antenna Tuner Unit (ATU) built in.
We briefly covered this in the Portable considerations. Being inbuilt is not a large consideration if this is for your shack as an extra unit is easy to add, and you may want an ATU that can handle more power or have some additional features, or you want some manual control.
In larger units, you will find that they may have an inbuilt ATU, but you do need to check the specs on whether it can match antennas with high SWR. As an example, the Icom IC-7300 will only match Antennas of 3:1 SWR or better (although it is understood it will tune 10:1 or better in a low output mode). The Xiegu G90 has a built in ATU which is supposed to be good up to 10:1.
However don’t sweat it, almost anyone with a home shack ends up with an auto Antenna Tuner or a switch selected air wound inductor type or if you are really fortunate a roller inductor model.
Looking for a radio with large screen and easy to use controls?
This might sound a little bit odd, but this could have an impact on your choice of radio and brand. Remember you could be spending hours in front of a radio and if your getting on in your years or the eyesight is going, your enjoyment may not be the same.
Whatever model you look to buy, just take a bit of time to look at your options for improving your display, which could include
- IQ Port on the transceiver
- Panadaptor (usually an optional extra)
- Software solution using a USB lead (IC-7300)
With some of these options, you have the ability to utilise the standard SDR software on a PC, so you can make it as big as the largest monitor you have. There are probably many other solutions, so worth looking at what your options are.
This could have a reasonable bearing on what your choice in HF Radio ends up being.
Are you after a “shack in a box”?
Let’s start by clarifying what we are referring to. There are two schools of thought when you hear the term “Shack in a Box”, these are
- Transceiver which covers the HF Bands and also the VHF and UHF bands in one transceiver which was the more common use of the term.
- A transportable box which houses a HF transceiver, a separate VHF/UHF Receiver and these are normally, combined usually with a small ATU and Power Supply. This type of box is best described as a Go-Box. However it has just as much right to the “Shack in a Box” name.
For clarity and the purpose of this article, we are referring to a transceiver that receives and transmits on the HF and VHF/UHF Bands as a “Shack in a Box” . The most popular of these radios are:-
However before you consider a “shack in a box”, look at the costs of a similar HF transceiver and separate VHF/UHF transceiver and compare. You should also consider other factors such as:
- If your radio develops a fault and requires warranty repair, this would mean you are totally offline, as opposed to still having a radio that you can still use.
- In many cases the “Shack in Box option” may mean that you need to compromise. As an example, and Icom 705, with only 5-10 watts, you need to consider the cost of an RF amplifier, especially if you are looking at your investment lasting a few years, and you obtain your standard licence in the first year or two, you now need to consider an RF amplifier in the costs as well.
There are benefits to either approach, just do you homework before you commit.
Are you after an SDR model with the Waterfall display?
Lets start by defining the Waterfall display. The Waterfall display is a graphical representation of signals across a defined frequency range. You can visually see the signals instead of tuning the dial trying to listen for signals. It has its advantage, but not the be all and end all.
What is the big difference however, is the difference between an SDR transceiver and your traditional Analog Transceiver. The best way is to provide a list of pros and cons on each type
- Tried true and trusted by the ham radio community
- In many cases easier to repair as uses discrete components and design is well understood
- What you buy, is generally what you get – upgrades normally have a cost involved (e.g new filters)
- If a design has a fault, generally it is not fixed
- In many cases, lower manufacturing costs
- New features may come out in firmware releases
- Fixes can come out in firmware releases
- Components are not necessarily discrete – harder to obtain
- Some firmware is encrypted – may not be easily modifiable by user
There are a lot more pros and cons, but the one thing that is clear is that SDR is here to stay, but you still have the reasons for the Traditional Transceivers as well.