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Your First HF Transceiver

There are several choices when it comes to procuring your first HF transceiver.
New, used or build your own? This article provides information needed to make the right decision.

1. Buy new

Picture of FT-817 transceiver

New HF amateur rigs start from under $1000. While that might seem high, it's a one-off and transceiver prices have fallen sharply relative to real wages in the last 20 or 30 years. When buying new, you also get the manufacturer's warranty (in some cases up to 5 years) and a better availability of optional accessories and spare parts.

Think of the following when selecting a new HF rig to buy:

RF power output

Available rigs are either full power (100 - 200 watt) or QRP (5 to 10 watts). On a dollar per watt basis 100 watt transceivers present the best overall value as an only transceiver, assuming you're using it from home or a vehicle. They can normally also be turned down to 5 - 10 watts. This is useful in countries that have a low power Foundation licence or you wish to try QRP.

QRP rigs are lighter, smaller, cheaper and draw less power. They are ideal for battery powered portable work and can be used by UK and Australian Foundation licence holders without fear of exceeding the legal output power. Their low price makes them attractive - a QRP rig is far better than having none at all! I discuss QRP rigs in more detail here.

To summarise, for most amateurs in most circumstances, a basic 100 watt HF transceiver for home and (especially) vehicle mobile operation is the best default choice for a first and only HF transceiver. Factors that could cause you to modify this include cases where you are exclusively portable QRP, small size is essential or you desperately want VHF/UHF SSB capability on a small budget.

Band coverage

This item is specifically about HF transceivers. However you should be aware that most include six metres. Some have two metres and seventy centimetres as well. This might affect your buying decision if you want an 'all-in-one' box. Generally the smaller, more portable transceivers have more bands than larger rigs.

Having an HF-only rig (such as an IC-718) isn't usually a problem as there's normally activity somewhere on HF and it's common to have a separate VHF/UHF FM rig for local communication. The main reason for choosing an 'all in one' is if you're also interested in VHF/UHF long distance SSB or digital mode communication.

Single band transceivers also exist. Unless they are considerably cheaper than a multiband radio or you need them for a special purpose such as lightweight portable operating, steer clear of them if they're your only radio.

One common example is 28 MHz only radios that appear to be souped-up CBs intended for the pirate market. Due to volatile band conditions which could mean days or more between contacts, a used transceiver covering more bands would be a better buy. On the other hand a low-cost single band SSB transceiver on (say) 7 or 14 MHz can be a lot of fun, especially for portable use.

Modes

All but the cheapest HF transceivers offer CW/SSB/AM/FM capabilities. AM and FM count as 'nice to have' features on an HF transceiver. 99% of the time you won't miss them if they're not there. All modern HF transceivers can be connected to a computer for digital modes though you may wish to investigate optional temperature compensated crystal oscillators (TCXOs) for improved frequency stability.

Receiver performance

100 watt HF transceivers vary considerably in price. Low-end models sell for around $1000 while dearer rigs might cost 2, 5 or even 10 times as much.

The difference between them is often over-emphasised. Price doesn't affect the strength and quality of transmitted signal as heard on the other side of the world very much. Instead owners of dearer sets are more likely to cite featurs such as large displays, spectrum scopes, and better receivers as reason for buying a better model. These benefits are enjoyed by ardent DXers or contesters but are by no means essential to working stations around the world.

Size

Larger radios have more room for easier to see screens, displays and knobs. Operating is more convenient as you're not pressing several buttons to change various radio settings. However they can be bulky for portable and mobile use, and often draw too much current when portable operating from batteries.

Supply and cost

Modern transceivers from well-known Japanese and American manufacturers generally perform well and have warranties of several years. They tend to be available from local ham shops, local online suppliers and internationally. Basic and mid-range transceivers from the 'big 3' (Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood) can be ordered via Amazon (links below) while others like the US-manufactured Elecraft are available direct from their website. Chinese manufacturers have entered the market in the last few years and are producing low power HF radios at attractively low prices. Ask around and read the reviews before buying as reports vary.

HF transceivers cost less (relative to wages) than they used to. Reputable entry level 100 watt HF rigs start from under $1000. Models in this price range have good reputations and you will make many successful contacts with any one of them. Another reason to go for a more econonmical model is that costs for the other items required to set up a station can quickly mount. The largest of these items to budget for include 13.8 volt low noise high current power supply, feedline, connectors, mast and antenna wire. It would be a very false economy if you had to skimp by using a noisy switch-mode power supply or a low drooping lossy antenna for instance.

I believe there is a 'sweet spot' where value for money peaks in the lower-middle range, with poorer value at the very low and very high pricing levels. The video elaborates on this topic and discusses how much you should spend on equipment relative to antennas.

 

 

2017 HF transceiver buying guide

Transceivers can either be bought from a 'bricks and mortar' ham radio shop or ordered online. A flick through an amateur magazine or internet search will reveal the major suppliers in your area. Modern transceivers are generally reliable but check warranty and repair arrangements in case anything goes wrong. If you're in a radio club others will be only too happy to share their good (and not so good) buying and service experiences.

Examples of available transceivers from the 'big three', grouped by approximate power level, band capability and price category, are listed below.

 

1. QRP: HF/VHF/UHF portable

 

2. 100w: HF+6m mobile

 

3. 100w: HF/VHF/UHF mobile

 

4. 100w: HF+6m home - basic (Alinco HF only)

 

5. 100w: HF+6m home - lower-middle

 

6. 100w: HF/VHF/UHF middle

 

7. 100w: HF+6m home - upper-middle

 

User reviews of all these transceiver models can be read on the reviews section of eham.net

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2. Buy secondhand

Picture of FT-890 transceiver Picture of Atlas 110 transceiver

'Why not secondhand gear?' is the obvious question a newcomer on a budget might ask. Secondhand was certainly a popular choice for generations of amateurs. But now maybe not so much. New gear is relatively cheaper. Ageing 1980s equipment is developing faults like dry joints and intermittents. And some older equipment has become so sought after by nostalgia and restoration buffs that prices have risen. I'm not saying there's no point in buying secondhand, but some of the asking prices you see make paying slightly more for a basic new transceiver better value.

There are several generations of secondhand gear. All can be used on the air; your contact won't be able to tell the difference between a stable 1970 SSB transceiver and one bought last week. Still you need to be aware of them so you've got a rough idea of their features and potential maintenance issues.

In reverse date order these are:

Mid 1980s - 2000s. These are fully solid state transceivers with digital frequency readouts and synthesised (DDS) VFOs. Even the cheapest models will have a general coverage HF receiver. Newer or dearer models may have a digital signal processor to reduce noise on receive. But unlike many of today's rigs only the high end rigs had a spectrum display screen. Rigs made in the first part of this period covered the HF amateur bands only but by the 1990s many had 50 MHz as well. Later on some models offered a 'shack in a box', covering bands from 1.8 to 432 MHz. Popular models included the Icom IC706, IC735, IC751, IC761 and IC765, Kenwood TS430, TS440, TS930, TS940 and TS2000, and from Yaesu the FT757, FT747, FT847, FT890, FT920 and FT990.

Early 1970s - mid 1980s. This was a transition period. Transceivers in the early part of this period had valve (tube) final amplifiers, analogue VFOs and reception on amateur bands only. Later on features that we know today, such as solid state final amplifiers, 12 volt operation, digital readout and general coverage receivers, started to emerge. Because of the popularity of the Japanese 10 watt novice licence some Yaesu and Kenwood transceiver models had cheaper low power versions. Also, because 10, 18 and 24 MHz were not available until 1982 older transceivers lacked these bands, although some could be modified to cover them. Lower-end transceivers were basic and lacked features we take for granted today such as dual VFOs, AM and FM modes, 160 metre coverage and even all portions of 10 metres. Other rigs had lots of options which may or may not have been installed. These options are all 'nice to haves' and a sound 1970s transceiver can still work well today. If you can see it working and don't pay too much! Popular models include the Yaesu FT101B/E/Z/ZD, FT-7/7B and the TS120/130, TS520/530 and TS820/830 series from Kenwood.

1960s - early 1970s. This was an era when many amateurs changed from AM to SSB and from separate transmitters and receivers to transceivers. Japanese manufacturers replaced US and UK brands at this time. Valves (tubes) were still dominant in most if not all stages. A transceiver from this period is not recommended for the beginner unless they have a servicing or vintage radio background due to the likelihood of faults, rarity of parts and high voltages contained inside. Example models include the Yaesu FT100 and FT200.

Prices for secondhand gear vary. As a rough guess between $300 and 500 for an older 1980s transceiver to maybe double that for something more modern. Note that at the higher end prices are very similar to new gear so think twice about paying it. The reviews section of eham.net has write-ups on almost every transceiver model ever made. A google search will often reveal dedicated website and downloadable circuits and manuals which can be handy to read before you make a bid on a rig up for sale.

The same rig fine for casual 80 metre ragchewing might not suit the diehard 20 metre contester or DXer. Like with new gear, consider features that are 'must haves', 'desirable' and 'not important'. Even make a checklist if you're torn between several choices. The sort of features common on modern gear but probably missing from a typical $300 older rig include the following:

* 160, 30, 17, 12 and parts of 10 metres
* AM and FM modes
* A speech processor
* Inbuilt antenna coupler
* Dual VFOs and memories
* A digital frequency display
* High frequency stability (eg TCXO) suitable for digital modes
* A general coverage receiver
* Digital signal processing on receive
* Narrow receiver filtering for Morse Code signals
* A spectrum scope display
* Easy connections for digital mode equipment
* Ability to connect to a computer

None of these are strictly essential. But a lot are nice to have. If several of them are of value you should look at a new or late model secondhand transceiver. Or at the very least not pay much for an older rig so you can upgrade sooner rather than later.

Basic recent and current model transceivers suitable for a beginner include the Yaesu FT817 (QRP), FT840, Icom IC703 (QRP), IC706, IC707, IC718, IC7000, IC7100 and Kenwood TS480. Some of these cover all bands up to 432 MHz and have most features in the above list. Those in a higher bracket (often due to having more bands) include the Yaesu FT-847, FT-897, Icom IC7200, Kenwood TS590 and TS2000.

I haven't listed any transceiver with valves (tubes), even though they have their followers. You can get lucky and have a the same set of finals operating for thirty years. Certain hybrid transceivers like the TS830 are known for their excellent overall performance. On the other hand components may develop heat failures. Replacement valves, transformers and high voltage components may be hard to come by and require diagnostic skills to fault find. If you like valves or hanker for the nostalgia, consider a rig like this as a second or project transceiver but not for your first or only one.

Buying

Sources for used gear include some amateur radio dealers or private sellers. Note that used rigs bought from a dealer may have a short warranty, whereas if you buy from an individual, you're on your own if something goes wrong. When buying a rig privately, try to see it operating and insist on receiving the manual for it.

Equipment is often advertised on eBay or websites classifieds like eHam or QRZ. Facebook also has amateur radio buy and sell groups - try to find one for your area to minimise freight and travel costs. If nothing available appeals there is nothing wrong with placing 'equipment wanted' ads, though, like with any transaction, beware of scammers.

Amateur radio hamfests and junk sales are popular used gear sources. Details of these are normally given on weekly nets and broadcasts, amateur magazines and club websites. Most large cities should have between two and six hamfests a year.

Radio club members are another possibility. It is quite likely that at least one member will have gear for sale, and you will not need to travel far to collect the rig. You may even know the seller and the history of the equipment being offered. As well, if your club has its own station, you may be able to use it to test equipment that you are considering purchasing. Club members who have been around for a while can be valuable sources of information on items you may be considering purchasing, and may even know the seller.

 

3. Convert equipment to the amateur bands

Picture of converted transceiver

Another option is to convert a commercial Royal Flying Doctor or similar SSB transceiver to the amateur bands. These radios deliver good performance, are rugged and are great for portable and mobile operation, especially if you want coverage of only a single band, such as 80 or 40 metres. However, converting these radios has many pitfalls for the newcomer. These include:

* Price - second-hand RFDS-type transceivers can be much more expensive than a brand new fully-featured HF amateur transceiver.
* Availability of information - Unless you are an experienced amateur, you will need a technical manual to do conversions. This may not always be easy or cheap to obtain.
* Correct sideband - Some sets transmit on upper sideband only. This severely limits their usefulness on 160, 80 and 40 metres where 99% of SSB activity is lower sideband. Also older rigs do AM only.

* Crystal control - The older sets that are available cheaply are crystal-controlled. However frequency agility is essential for amateur operation. A DDS variable frequency oscillator (often available as a kit) can be built into some transceivers, but complications can make this a task not for the raw beginner.

To summarise, unless you can get a set for a good price, and have help from a more experienced and equipped amateur, I would suggest giving these transceivers a miss and buying or building instead.

 

4. Build your own from scratch

Homebrew transceivers  Homebrewtransceiver

A special aspect of amateur radio is being allowed to build your own transmitting equipment. Though it is unrealistic for the newcomer to be able to build their own multiband HF transceiver, building simple single band direct conversion receivers and low powered QRP transmitters is not unreasonable.

If you're on a limited budget, building your own is the cheapest way to get on the air - a 40 metre Morse Code or voice transmitter capable of covering up to 3000km should cost less than $30 to construct. Double sideband voice transmitters like the Beach 40 use a few more parts but are also extremely rewarding.

The basic components for homebrew transceivers can be obtained from mainstream electronic parts suppliers. However you will need to obtain more specialised parts such as variable capacitors, dial drives, toriods, crystals, RF transistors and ICs elsewhere. These can be found at amateur hamfests or purchased online. Construction has become easier in recent years especially if you use manufactured or kit DDS VFO or audio amplifier modules for part of your project. Top picks for QRP projects has ideas on projects which are simple enough to build but not so basic that contacts will be difficult.

 

5. Assemble a transceiver kit

A kit is an option if you want to save money but don't have the time or confidence to build something from scratch. They are a good idea for the constructor just starting out as there are no esoteric parts to seek. The main disadvantage of kits is that they are harder to customise to your requirements, especially if they are constructed on printed circuit boards.

Available kits range from the 'bare bones' to the advanced. When choosing a circuit or kit to build, be aware that not all designs are equal. Some might be very simple but not get many (if any) contacts. While others are too complex for the beginner. A Morse or DSB/SSB rig for 80 or 40 metres is a good starting point. It should have about 2 watts or more output and be frequency agile.

Two cheap and available transceiver kits to especially consider are the OzQRP MDT 40 metre DSB transceiver and the Bitx40 SSB transceiver. The MDT is a kit you put together yourself, including inserting and soldering all through-hole parts. It's light, portable and very economical on power. Controlled by a ceramic resonator oscillator it covers a part of the 7 MHz band. The Bitx is quite different. It's larger, more powerful and transmits SSB. The board is preassembled, with mostly surface-mount parts. This means that all you need to do is to find a box and make a few soldered connections to wires connecting off-board controls and sockets such as microphone, speaker, volume, tuning, and antenna. The MDT and Bitx40 are both reviewed on my QRP page. QRP Equipment on that same site may also be helpful.

 

Disclosure: I receive a small commission from items purchased through links on this site.
Items were chosen for likely usefulness and a satisfaction rating of 4/5 or better.

 

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