How To Chose a Radio

Several YLs from time to time have asked “how to do I know what radio to buy” so this page is designed to help with some of those answers.

How do I decide what HT (Handi Talkie) to buy? This is a very important question that is asked by every new Ham.

Another similar question is what ‘big’ transceiver radio for HF should I buy?

The ARRL WEBSITE has a paragraph that partially answers these 2 questions. Here it is and you can find this paragraph and more at this link.

Q) Why can’t I get a recommendation about the best radio to buy?

A) There may be a “best radio,” but what is best for one ham would not be best for another. Every ham needs to evaluate his or her own needs, prefrences and budget against the new or used radios that are available. ARRL answers this question by pointing members to the informatiion we publish in each QST Product Reveiw, and to the “Best Rig” FAQ page we have put on the ARRL web site Technology page, to help members answer the question for themselves. Just as one example, to many members, a rig’s features may be more important than the “numbers” in the Product Review column that describe a rig’s measured performance. Just as one example, for hams with modest antennnas, there are not usually a lot of big signals to overload the receiver, so a receiver with a adequate dynamic range will sound just as good as one with a top-drawer (and top price) dynamic range. The articls on the Best Rig FAQ page describe all this and more.”

So, bottom line:

RE. HT (Handi Talkie) radios, you would want to know what repeaters you are planning to use (2 meters, 1.25 meters aka 220s , or 70 Cm ). If you plan to use all 3 you would get a “Tribander”.

If you only want to do 2 meters (VHF) you would get one that only does 2 meters (aka 144 MHz)

Ditto re. 70 Cm. which is a UHF radio (aka 420 MHz). If you only want to do UHF (70 cm) you would get one that only does that.

Most folks get a HT that does both 2 meters VHF and 70 cm UHF as they seem to be the most popular bands in most areas although we also have 222mhz repeaters in our area– so I, for example, have both a Tribander HT and a dual band HT (for 2 meters and 70 cm.)

Some folks are getting into Digital modes so, if you plan to do D-Star or one of the other digital modes, you would want to get a HT that does D-Star or DMR or whatever you think you will do in addition to VHF or UHF. Most digital radios such as D-Star etc. also have 2 meter or 70 cm capability as well. They do cost a lot more, however, so if you don’t plan to do digital, stick with the HTs that do 1 or 2 or 3 of “normal” repeaters in your area.

Re what HF (High Frequency) Radio to purchase? — the above paragraph from the ARRL website still applies. In other words, what do you plan to DO with HF? Are you going to only “ragchew”? Are you going to do contests? (you will need a much more expensive and high powered radio and amplifier and antenna set up if you plan to be a big time contester).

If you are going to mainly check into nets and do ragchews” you don’t need a big expensive HF Transciever and big expensive towers for antennas. You can happily exist with a radio such as my Yaesu 897D and a dipole antenna for the HF part.

But, joy and happiness, my 897D also does VHF and UHF which is a very nice feature which I really like!!! So If you get a radio like the 897D or one similiar to it (since the 897D is no longer manufactured) then you need to add a second antenna for the VHF UHF part (usually something like the antenna you would use for a vehicle — which you put on a metal file cabinet or on a big metal pizza pan or some other such large metal ‘counterpoise’ type object. I am using a moble type antenna which I put on a big 2 1/2 ft square metal plate in the attic. (The higher you can get your antenna, the happier you will be.)

Most HF radios, however, do NOT include VHF and UHF. They mainly do HF (which is 160 meters through 6 meters).

But if you also want to do HF plus VHF and UHF using the same radio, look for Transceivers that do 160 meters through 6 meters PLUS VHF and UHF. As I said — That is what I have and I love it. Of course I am NOT a big time contester and don’t plan to be. My interest is many checking into nets and ragchewing plus checking into the YL net (on UHF) and our club net (on VHF) so everything happens in my one radio.

Also, IF you plan to put a radio in your car, van, mobile home, truck, or whatever — you need to consider what you plan to do with that radio. If you are only going to use it to talk on the VHF and UHF repeaters in your area (which is what most people do) then look for that type of radio. Many of those can also be easily removed and brought into your ‘shack’ — so decide when you install the radio in your vehicle if you want to easily remove it and take it inside or if you want it to be permantly mounted in your vehicle.

And believe it or not, you might not have to install a ‘big’ radio in your vehicle at all if you only plan to ragchew occasionally. Many of us use our HTs either with the antenna on the HT or by attaching the HT to a bigger antenna on the vehicle itself.

You can get an antenna to put on your vehicle and an adaptor for your HT to connect to that antenna for about $50 and you will be ‘good to go’ with a ‘radio in the car’ without installing a big serious radio.

I am able to hit the repeaters in our area when I am in the car with just my HT and the antenna on the HT and the thin wire counterpoise. But, I don’t talk on the radio much when in the car as I am giving more attention to driving than to talking — though I usually have the HT on and am listening to the folks talk.

So before you buy a ‘big system’ for your vehicle, think about what you will really be doing with your radio in the vehicle. If it is just for occasional use, you might not have to buy and install a big radio and antenna. You might be able to get by with your HT and its antenna and counterpoise or your HT and an adapter to an antenna on your vehicle.

But IF you plan to have a radio in your car, van, mobile home, truck or whatever that does HF, you are seriously looking at a much bigger expense — in both the cost of the radio and the types of antennas you will need. Some folks do have HF capability in their vehicles — but that is not for me.

So think about what you plan to do with your radio before you buy one for your vehicle.

And think about what you plan to do with your radio before you buy a HT.

And think about what you plan to do with your radio before you buy a radio for HF.

Do NOT rush into any of these purchases

if you have an Elmer, ask him or her for advice — and often Elmers have a radio or HT or antenna or coax or whatever that you can borrow and try out before you make any serious purchases.

When you purchase your HT (Handi Talkie) radio, it will come with an antenna which is commonly referred to as a “rubber duck”. I don’t know why they call it that but that’s its nickname and it is usually short — maybe 5 or 6 inches or so in length.

Your short rubber duck antenna might work fine but most folks do not use it and get something longer — usually one that is about 12 or 14 or so inches long — and then they usually also add a counterpoise to the antenna.

The counterpoise (also sometimes called a “tiger tail” or “pig tail” will vary depending on whether you are going to use your radio for 2 meters, 70 cm, or a combination of 2 meters and 70 cm.

How long should the Tiger tail /counterpoise be?

  • If your HT is VHF only 11.5 inches
  • If your HT is UHF only 6.5 inches
  • If your HT is Dual Band 19.5 inches

Note: the Dual band length is a compromise but should work quite well for most people.

One more thing about antennas — don’t skimp on the cost. Get one that is a well known brand name and not a ‘cheapo’.

For example — for my Tribander I have a Diamond SRH320A. It was not cheap but certainly made a difference.

The moral to the story about radios and antennas — is that you might have the best radio in the world but the secret is having a reallllly good antenna if you want to ‘reach out’ to the world. This caveat is for both HTs and HF radios. Do not scrimp on your antennas.

As mentioned above in the discussion about radios — it all depends on what you plan to do with your radio.

If you are going to be into serious contesting, you will need serious antennas and probably towers.

If you are mainly going to be checking into nets and doing ragchews, then a Dipole or other similiar basic antenna will likely satisfy your needs.

As you become more proficient and interested in the Ham radio hobby, you may want to upgrade to more serious antennas and transceivers — but as you start out — don’t get too carried away. Dipoles and 100 watt HF Transceivers will give you hours and hours of fun and enjoyment.

If you are not a member, you really should join because there is a lot of information such as the reviews available on the ARRL website.

If you are not a member, there is still a lot of very helpful information available, but if you want to read reviews and more, it is truly worth the ‘price of membership’ to get the Monthly magazine (QST), product reviews, an EMail address, and more.

The ARRL website has a FAQ page that helps answer some of the above questions and you do not have to be a member to access that FAQ page. Here’s the Link to that FAQ page.