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Blog - Tips on Buying Your First Radio

Bloggers note: I would like to thank my faithful Elmer, Jim Erickson, KB0DBJ, for presenting this topic on the YLNTX Weekly Net and for sharing his Power Point presentation with me, which I have blatantly plagiarized in spots. (Thanks, Jim!) ~KG5BHY

There are many different things to consider when purchasing your first radio. With all the options for bands, brands and budgets, the choices can be overwhelming – especially if you’re new to the hobby. But with careful thought and consideration, you can make an informed purchase and wind up with a radio that will serve you well for many years to come.

The first, and probably the easiest choice, is deciding what bands you would like your prospective radio to cover. The 2-meter band (144 – 148 MHz) is the most popular band. The 440 band (440-450 MHz), also known as the 70-cm band, is the largest band and because of this, it has the most repeaters. The 220 band is growing in popularity as well. Other bands, such as 900 and 1200 MHz have not experienced as much growth. Recommendation: most dual band radios cover the 2 meter and 440 bands, so this choice makes the most sense.

Once you have made a decision on the bands, the next question to consider is, handheld (HT) or mobile? The pros of HTs: they are generally cheaper, definitely more portable, and their range can be extended with a good external antenna. The cons of HTS: they lack power and, because they run on batteries, they are likely to run out of power at the most inopportune of times. (I can attest!)

The major pro of a mobile unit is that it has much more power. The major con of a mobile unit is that it *USES* much more power. Also, while HTs come with a small antenna, mobile units require an external antenna. Mobile units are also much more expensive. Perhaps the deciding factor should be the applicable uses? HTs are good for up-close and personal work, like parades and bike races. Mobile units are good for intermediate distances and are good for mobile communications on local repeaters. Recommendation: perhaps a mobile unit and an HT are in order?

Great! You’ve chosen your band or bands and the type of radio you want to purchase. The next logical question is… new or used? Buying used is risky unless you know the seller, have good test equipment or it’s very cheap so it’s worth the risk.

Additionally, used equipment is usually older and hard to find parts for it. It can also be outdated, meaning that it may lack some of the newer, desired features. If you decide to go with used, be sure and enlist the aid of an Elmer or ask a knowledgeable club member. Over time your circle of ham friends will expand and you will know who and what you can trust.

Now. Here’s where things get really, really sticky. When it comes to radios and brands, *everyone* has an opinion and brand loyalty can be rampant in the ham community. Keep your mind open and consider the opinions of all who are willing to share their knowledge.

Check sites like eHam, QRZ, ARRL and QST for radio reviews. Ask people what radios they use and get specific with your questions. Ask what they like or don’t like about their radios. Take stock of the brands and models during your polling. You may find a lot of people own the same radios! Also, their feedback will provide you with additional considerations when looking at specific features.

Disclaimer: DBJ would like me to point out that the following reflections on brands of radio represent his views and his views only. You're results may vary. (Apparently, saying anything derigatory about another ham's brand of radio is akin to "fighting words" so.... all opinions should be respected as ... you know..... OPINIONS.)

We now return you to our previously schedule topic.

There are approximately four major brands that inspire loyalty: Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu and Alinco. There are a few Chinese brands as well: Baofeng, Anytone, Wouxon.

Kenwood radios are known for their excellent audio. They are extremely easy to program and have a lot of extra features included for the price. However, because they are such good receivers, they are prone to interference in densely populated areas. Kenwood has a long history with the ham community and as such, they listen to owner feedback. As a company, they will make changes and incorporate new features based on suggestions from the ham community. The interaction between the company and its owners creates an in-demand product.

Icom radios are very tough, bulletproof transmitters, however, they are not known for having great receivers. They can be difficult to program and charge extra for accessories such as mounting brackets. For that matter, ICOM is one of the priciest options on the market for mobile radios.

Yaesu transceivers are very common in EOCs, so if you act as net control for ARES or RACES during storm season, this may be the radio you encounter in the EOC building. The receivers themselves are not as good as Kenwood, but they are better than ICOM. They can be tricky to program and typically do not offer as much power as the Kenwood dual band mobiles.

Alinco radios are not as common as the big three, but all-in-all, they are not bad radios. For power, they offer a whopping 85 watts on the two meter band. However, they can be a little “weird” to program and because they are sold by independent dealers, they can be hard to find if you decide to purchase one.

There are many different Chinese brands to choose from, such as Baofeng, Anytone, TYT, Wouxon, etc. They are inexpensive and offer lots of accessories for the price. Due to the minimal cost, they are a good entry point for new hams and a good backup radio for any ham.

Additionally they are FCC certified to operate on commercial bands such as marine and GMRS. Because of these factors, the Chinese brand’s popularity have soared over the years. If you're having difficulty with yours, it’s easy to find help, either on-line or within your club. Paradoxically, due to mass-production, there are quality control issues. The antenna connectors are backwards compared to the other non-Chinese brands. Also, they are poor-quality non-selective receivers.

So, here’s the gist of it. If you’re shopping for a radio, ask yourself these questions. What is your budget? What features do you want? What will you be doing with it? Each choice depends on your individual situation.

While I have, as previously mentioned, blatantly plagiarized most of this blog from the notes of KB0DBJ, I can’t type this up this without sharing my own opinion, so here goes.

When shopping for *my* first radio, I was concerned about making a large investment in a hobby I wasn’t sure was going to be long-lived. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me to spend a ton of money on something that might be a “fly-by-night hobby”. In the end, I went for quality. I’m glad I did because hamming stuck.

Having said that, I could have easily sold that equipment to a fellow ham if I had decided to abandon the hobby. So, based on my experience, I would have to say – buy the best piece of equipment you can afford. I know more than one ham who purchased an inferior-quality starter HT and was unhappy with the results.

Jim Erickson, KB0DBJ, presented this topic to the net and he has more specific opinions. His picks? Kenwoods are a favorite for mobile radio, specifically the Kenwood V71A for mobile. Yaesu handhelds are another favorite, specifically the Yaesu FT-60R. Buy an older ICOM or Alinco only if it’s a good price.

And that, my friends, is radio shopping 101, as presented in six minutes or less.