Taking the Plunge
How a neophyte goes about choosing, and assembling an
Amateur radio station.
I had many decisions to make, as an amateur operator, starting
from scratch. There is certainly a variety of equipment out there. There
are some great classic old radios, from Heath Collins, Kenwood, Yaesu,
and numerous others. My first inclination was to get myself an old Heath
SB-104. The price is reasonable, on most of these units, and they do have
a digital display, along with many nice features. They are also touched
by some of the mystique of the old time radios. A ham operator at work
(let's call her Elmer), gave me a few sage words of advice, which I will
pass on. The Heath radios were a definite major influence on ham radio.
They were a major player, and got many hams started in their hobby. On
paper, these were some great radios, and were real bargains for the performance
they could give. Unfortunately, these radios would only perform as advertised,
when properly built, calibrated, and set up. Most of these radios were
owner built, and then significantly owner modified. This makes picking
one up on the used market, a roll of the dice. You could end up with an
excellent radio, a really superb piece of gear. You could also end up with
a real boat anchor, causing you nothing but problems, and performing poorly.
The final nail in the coffin of the Heath plan was the lack of full coverage
(most do not cover the 160 meter band), and the lack of any support structure,
since Heath is no longer in the electronics business.
I had thought to get into ham radio on a budget.
My thought was to get started with a technician license, spend a few hundred
on a fair quality radio, and see where things led. There are two choices,
for the ham on a budget, used commercial gear, or used military gear. Traditionally,
there was a third choice, of home brewed gear, but few hams build from
scratch, these days, though most do perform some sort of modification of
commercially built gear. I immediately ruled out the use of military gear,
after hunting around a bit. Most of the available surplus gears is well
worn, and unsuitable for amateur use. The military uses odd frequencies,
often uses odd (by amateur standard) frequency shifts, or steps, and may
require considerable modification to be used in a ham shack. Much of what
the military uses is also much too large, heavy, and power hungry for most
ham operators. The gear can also be overly specialized. You might see some
six channel crystal transceivers, which will weigh 30 pounds, and require
a 24 volt power source. Such a radio could set you back $100-$300 or more.
I saw no point in going this route.
Having ruled out the selection of a Heath product,
and given up on military gear, I looked at all of the major players. The
main producers of Ham radios are Kenwood, Yaesu, and Icom. There are others,
certainly, but these seem to be the big three today. I looked at older
used gear first, but found little appeal, when I compared the prices, and
capabilities with those of newer gear. Looking through the selections,
I decided on some things which I must have. A digital display was a given,
because I did not wish to deal with the constant tuning, shifting, and
calibration concerns of dial displays. I also decided that I needed to
have gear which could interface with my computer. I had gotten used to
this feature, with my Icom PCR-100 short-wave radio, and decided to settle
for nothing less in my ham gear. I would require an automatic antenna tuner.
The reasons for this are similar to the reason for a digital display. I
wished to have no problems with constantly adjusting load, and impedance
on my antenna, while changing frequencies. This would also be required,
because I live in an apartment, and do not have the option of erecting
a mast, or cultivating an antenna farm. With these requirements in mind,
I went off to build myself a station.
What I found, shot my plan to pieces. While there
is certainly a great supply of low priced gear, none of it fits my requirements.
What I was looking for, could not be found for under $500, more or less.
This would be the approximate cost of a mid range radio, from ten years
ago. One model, which I considered seriously, was a Kenwood TS-440. This
radio covers the entire HF (160 to 10 meter) spectrum, can be had with
an auto antenna tuner, and has a digital display, and computer interface.
A unit configured this way seems to sell in the $500-$600 range. As these
radios have been around for a while, there is a pretty good knowledge base
out there for them. There are numerous modifications, and accessories,
and most have been upgraded by their owners with filters, FM modules, or
some such thing. These are good beginner radios, and are often on their
second or third owner. I came very close to buying one of these units,
but some consideration gave me second thoughts.
As a technician class ham, I can not broadcast on
any of the HF bands. This means that the Kenwood could be used as little
more than a very expensive, and fancy Short-wave tuner. The bands I do
have permission to broadcast on (6M, 2M, 70cm) are not covered by the TS-440.
Eventually, I will have a more advanced license, but even then, I will
still want to use these higher frequencies. It would seem, then, that the
answer would be to forget about the Kenwood, and get a VHF unit. I looked
at a number of these, and found them to be expensive, and very limited.
While the all mode units were almost as expensive as the multi band HF
models I had been looking at, they seemed so limited. It seemed that my
shack would have at least three radios. One would be a multi band, HF unit.
One would be a 6 meter unit, and one would be a 2 meter unit. I might also
wish to try the 70cm band, though this band has a very limited range. To
have a shack which covered the whole ham radio spectrum, and one on which
I would be able to operate on immediately, It seemed that at least $1000
would need to be spent on radios. This was a far cry from the $200-$400
with which I had hoped to gain entry into the radio spectrum.
Taken to it's logical conclusion, this train of
though had me looking at considerably more expensive radios. It made no
sense to spend this kind of money on older gear, when for a bit more, I
could get some newer more advanced radios, which would give me longer service.
I had eventually narrowed my choices down to the Icom 746, The Yaesu 847,
and the Kachina DSP550. These are all, pretty much, top of the line radios.
This is a far cry, from my initial plan of getting a beginner's rig, and
working my way into the hobby. The Kachina is a special case, and is probably
one of the best HF radios made, and certainly is the best of these three,
though it is a bit unconventional. The Yaesu, and Icom units are upscale,
but neither are the absolute top of the line. Both radios cost about the
same, and are aimed at the same market, but in truth, the Yaesu is probably
a better radio, than the Icom, by a pretty good margin. There are, however,
other factors which influenced my decision.
The Icom is essentially an all in one radio station.
The power supply, and antenna tuner are built right in. It is simply plugged
in, connected to the antenna, and turned on. In my own case, I would also
need to connect it to my computer, and install the software, but none of
this is very difficult. The Yaesu specs out quite a bit better than the
Icom, but requires an external antenna tuner, and power supply. These are
both extra cost, and extra trouble. They also take up extra room, which
an apartment dweller does not have. What I lose with the Icom, besides
the better specs, is the 70cm band. I have been told that this is not a
huge loss, as the band does not carry far, and is mostly limited to hand
helds. The Icom ends up being about $400 less costly, after the power supply,
and antenna tuner have been factored in. Even with the extra cost, I would
have probably gone with the Yaesu, except for a couple of things. The first
is, that I would require at least three (possibly four) antennas. This
is simply not an option, where I live. The second is my space limitation.
The Yaesu, with an external tuner, and power supply, would take up too
much space. Buying The Icom used, I would end up spending just under $1000
on my shack, which is what a collection of less capable, lower quality
radios would have cost, had I decided on separate HF, and UHF transceivers.
I had my mind all made up then. I would get the
Icom, and that would be that. Of course, no plan ever survives contact
with the real world. A friend of mine was selling a Kenwood TS440SAT, the
radio I had initially planned to buy. It was shown to me, and offered at
at price of six hundred dollars, which would include all of the filters,
the FM module, the built in antenna tuner, and a small, 2 meter radio by
Azden. I played with the radios for a while, and then paid over the six
hundred dollars. The Kenwood is a 10-160 meter radio, which outs out 110
watts on am and 200 watts on SSB. The little Azden is FM only, and puts
out 50 watts.
I am quite happy with the Kenwood unit, and can
understand it's popularity, even considering it's limitations. It is a
nice general coverage receiver, and can be modified to be a general coverage
transmitter, as mine has been by the previous owner. I listen quite a bit,
to the HF bands, though I only transmit on 2 meters, using the little Azden.
I hope to upgrade my license, and get on the international bands soon.
Of course, that would tempt me into buying a linear, and maybe some other
pieces of gear, but then, that's part of the fun too. I will probably end
up buying a Kachina, as a sort of second radio. The Kachina has excellent
specs, though it is limited to HF, and has no 6 meter, or 2 meter capability.
I am also looking to set up a station on my sailboat, using the back stay,
and fore stay as a big dipole antenna. Space, and power limitation being
what they are, on a sailboat, I may end up using the Kenwood there, and
getting myself a Yaesu, or Icom after all.