I've been a ham since 1995 (original call KC5YNP). I'm very serious about the hobby, particularly the hardware side, and I've been blessed with the opportunity to test a wide variety of gear. It takes a lot to impress me, especially first impressions. I don't do 'fanboy' reviews - there's plenty of that crap out on YouTube. I'll tell you how I really feel about a piece of gear only after I've used and tested it over a long period of time. I also evaluate hardware within its original design envelope - how good was it when it was first released, not how well it works today. Here's an example - I'm frequently surprised by folks who buy a newly manufactured Yaesu FT-818 and then bitch about how it's a poor performer because it's not an SDR, or has poor filter options. Well duhhh. It's a 23 year old design! You have to evaluate hardware in the framework of its original design and when it was released to market. In its day the FT-817 (predecessor to the 818) was a groundbreaking little rig (and yes, it's on my list).
So how do I evaluate? To be honest, most of my criteria are subjective. But in general:
A radio must be well built - it must be physically rugged and able to provide years of service within its intended use case. What this generally means is that things like HTs need to be more physically rugged than an HF rig designed to sit on a desk
Whatever features a radio offers must be well implemented. For example, if an HT is 2 meters only, that's OK, but the features in the radio - thinks like navigating menus, entering frequencies directly into the VFO, etc. - must be well implemented and easy to figure out. I shouldn't have to turn to a manual to figure out what should be easy and obvious
Manufacturer specific features need to really work, and work well, and add value to the overall package. For example, a well known (and respected) manufacturer adds a lot of proprietary features to their radios that only work with other radios of the same brand. Things like group calling, group alerts, etc (experienced readers will figure out what manufacturer I'm talking about). I view these as cute parlor tricks that have little value in the real world. If adding these features to the radio incurs additional retail cost, or squeezes out other more useful features then that's a no-go
Value for money. A radio needs to offer good value for money. I have a lot more respect for a manufacturer that leaves out some bells and whistles to keep the cost down, as long as the overall package performs well.
There's also what I call the 'long term respect' factor. I've had radios that at first glance didn't impress me all that much, but after long periods of use I came to really respect them for one reason or another.
So without further ado, let's take a look at my list:
Icom ID-5100. The best dual band mobile rig I've ever used. This radio is, quite literally, my daily driver - I have it installed in my truck and it's been used daily for the past 3 years. I bought it for two features - DSTAR capability and the ability to do cross-band repeat. It does both of those spectacularly. I was so impressed with the first one I bought that I went out and bought a second for use in my shack.
Why I like it: Dual receive, very well implemented command set, a well thought out touchscreen interface, easy to implement cross-band repeat, rugged. An outstanding value for money, even if you don't use DSTAR.
Yaesu VX-6R. The sole survivor of Yaesu's classic 'rugged miniature' line of HTs that were very popular in the early 2000s. Just a simple, well implemented dual band (but not dual receive) radio in a small, rugged package. How rugged? I made a video once of me operating the radio during a tropical storm:
Why I like it: Rugged. Waterproof. Waterproof accessories. Well implemented command set. If you operate in wet conditions this is the radio to have.
Yaesu FT-60. The HT that refuses to die. For good reason. Perhaps the best all-around, basic dual band radio on the market. It's unpretentious, extremely well made, has an easy to navigate menu system (thanks to the full keypad) and offers excellent receive audio - something more modern Yaesu HTs seem to struggle with. I've owned two, sold one, and gave the other away to a new ham. Now I'm seriously thinking about buying a third while they are still available.
Why I like it: for all the reasons I list above - it's rugged (although not waterproof like the VX-6), has a well implemented feature set, is easy to manage thanks to the full keypad (backlit, by the way), has great audio, and has real and easy to manipulate knobs for things like volume, squelch and channel selection.
Icom ID-51. I bought this radio strictly for the DSTAR features, and as I struggled to figure out DSTAR I found myself not really liking the radio. My frustrations with DSTAR had colored my perception of the ID-51, and I rarely used it. Heck, I almost came to resent the thing. All that money for a system I just couldn't figure out. Then one day I picked it up to use for a public service event where I needed to be able to monitor two analog repeaters simultaneously, and was forced to actually use the radio in a real-world scenario. I quickly came to love it. Although it just recently went out of production (replaced by the ID-52) I consider it, in its time, to be one of the best dual-band, dual-receive HTs ever made. This little radio is now one of my 'daily drivers', and it's the one I instinctively grab when heading out to a park, or just to walk the dogs around the neighborhood.
Why I like it: The feature set and controls are well implemented, the monochrome screen is easy to read, the audio is outstanding. It's also one of the most ergonomic radios on the market - it just feels good in the hand. Plus, it's rugged. Icom never really highlighted this about the radio, but the ID-51 carried an IPX7 rating, meaning it was highly waterproof. It's a lightweight, rugged little beastie.
Icom IC-7300. The radio that has re-defined the mid-range HF radio. I own two of these (one bought used) and I run them hard on both voice and digital modes. Think 90 watts on MARS digital modes. There simply is no better HF radio in the same price class, period. The 7300 deserves all the hype that surrounds it. Even today, almost seven years after it's introduction, it sells by the boat-load. Literally, by the boat-load; Icom can't make enough of them to meet demand. My only gripe with the IC-7300 is that it does not have back-lit buttons. That's it. I know several hams that have one or more of these in storage as back-ups in case their 'daily drivers' go down. But the thing is, they never seem to go down. The reliability of the 7300 is one of its hallmarks. It's almost like Icom built a 200 watt rig and put it into a 100 watt box. Psssst - here's a little secret: the IC-7300 is actually a pretty good portable rig. It's really not that large, is fairly lightweight, is quite rugged, and as long as you keep it out of the rain and dust it'll do just fine in The Great Outdoors.
Today, the IC-7300 is the only 100 watt HF rig I unhesitatingly recommend to new and old hams alike.
Why I like it: Outstanding feature set, pretty good internal tuner, perhaps the easiest 100 watt rig to configure for digital modes, build-in sound card interface, excellent digital mode performance, outstanding filtering, great TX audio, excellent third party support. An excellent value for money, particularly if you can find a good used one.
Yaesu FT-818. This is one radio I don't use all that often, but I just like knowing that I have it. It's the low power Swiss Army Knife of ham radio. It does everything. Often not particularly well, but it does it all - 70 cm thru 160 meters, FM/AM/USB/Digital. The radio design is over 22 years old, yet it's still relevant. No other QRP rig on the market offers the features, quality and reliability that the FT-818 does at a similar price-point. It is the value-for-money champ. It's issues are legendary - a lack of any real filtering, poor frequency stability (improved somewhat in the updated 818 with the inclusion of a factory TXCO), a laughably archaic charging and power management system (again, that 22 year old design coming to the forefront), and a maximum of 6 watts output. But what you do get works wonderfully, in a package little bigger than a large paperback book. Yaesu did an outstanding job with the form factor - it looks and operates like a radio should! I've griped about the FT-817/818 (essentially the same radio) in the past, but I've also come to appreciate its performance, features and quirks. And now I can't imagine ham radio life without it. What's it's niche in my stable of radios? It's like this - when my wife and I go camping, I always put a lot of thought into what HF radio(s) to bring. The mix always changes. But after I'm done selecting, packing and loading all my radio gear, I've got the camper all ready to go, all the camping gear is loaded, the truck is gassed up, everything's hooked up and the dogs are in their places in the back seat, I always run back into the house, grab the Pelican case that holds my 818 and chuck it into the bed of the truck. Just in case...
Why I like it: Extremely versatile, well built, very well supported by third party software and accessory manufacturers, easy to operate and figure out.
Elecraft KX-2: The KX2 is what you get when a team of very talented electronics designers and engineers who are also ham radio enthusiasts take the time to listen to their user community and design and build something to meet a very specific set of use requirements. The KX2 is so good at what it does it's almost scary. The radio is a QRP rig specifically designed for HF voice and CW. It'll do digital, but not nearly as well as it does voice and CW. It was also specifically designed to be small, light, easy to operate, and sip power so it can operate for long periods of time on relatively small batteries. And then someone asked, "Can we fit a tuner in this thing?" and next thing you know, the KX2 has one of the best internal tuners on the market. All in a package no bigger than a 1980's era 2 meter HT. But the icing on the cake is Elecraft's factory support. It is, far and a way, the best in the industry. What other manufacturer dialogs directly with their product owners through social media tools like Groups.io? I'm not talking about a designated corporate mouthpiece, but the actual designer of the radio, and one of the company owners? They will extend a helping hand regardless of how long you've owned your radio. I bought a very early production KX2, and I'm the third owner. I had some questions, and Elecraft happily answered my questions as though I had bought the radio new yesterday, and it was was still under warranty. I've written about my KX2 in the past, so I won't re-hash the issues here. Suffice to say, the KX2, six years after it's introduction, is still the best HF-only QRP rig on the market.
Why I like it: Excellent best-in-class HF performance, extremely small form factor, yet with a very well designed and easy to read display, an internal tuner that puts most other tuners to shame, an internal battery that will provide true 10 watts of output. The world's best manufacturer support.
Icom IC-705: Those that follow this blog probably figured I'd get here eventually. I won't say that with the IC-705, Icom hit it out of the park. But they did manage to put the ball squarely into the centerfield seats for a home run. I've written extensively about the IC-705 in this blog, and you can check out my posts by clicking here. The 705 continues to impress, and it's become one of my three main operating radios. That means it doesn't sit in a bag or Pelican case waiting for a POTA run. It is set up on my operating bench and gets used almost daily. In fact, I do all of my Winlink VARA testing and operations on the 705. Unlike any of my other QRP radios (KX2, 818, CTX-10), the 705 is a digital mode beast, and it is certainly no slouch on voice operations, either. I have two gripes about the 705, both of which deserve serious consideration by Icom. First is the radio's well documented lack of shielding, which makes the rig very susceptible to RFI, particularly over USB. The next is the form factor. The 705 tries to follow the Elecraft KX2 form factor, but the design team stumbled badly along the way. The form factor is just weird, the radio doesn't 'sit' right anywhere. It's an oddly awkward case design. But what the 705 does well, and overall better than just about any other QRP (or even 100 watt) rig is communicate. The front face of the rig is laid out like a miniature IC-7300, so if you are familiar with the 7300 or the IC-7610 you'll be able to set this rig up and start operating in minutes, without the manual. In typical Icom fashion, everything is well implemented and integrated. The build quality seems solid, although it does not carry any IP ratings. Like most new radios, there's still some question about the long-term reliability, but based on comments I've seen posted to the IC-705 Groups.io reflector and Facebook page, it seems to be holding up very well in outdoor use. Let's talk value-for-money. The IC-705 isn't cheap. Street price today is around $1,350. But when you compare its feature set with its closest competitor, the Elecraft KX3, the KX3 is more expensive and lacks many of the features the 705 provides. From this perspective I think the 705 actually offers quite a bit of value for its asking price.
Why I like it: Excellent overall performance on all modes, particularly digital, well thought-out control layout, excellent build quality, a very good power management system and surprisingly good battery life considering it's an SDR
Well, that's it for this list. If you have any questions or comments please post them below. Let us know about the radios that have impressed you the most over the years!
About half the time I'm operating on HF I'm wearing headphones. Usually it's because I'm participating in a formal net - MARS or SHARES - and I need to be able to hear and acknowledge all participants, even under tough propagation conditions. This means headphones.
Like so many old-timers in Amateur Radio I've tried a huge variety of brands and models of headphones. All were good in some form or fashion. Some were really good - Heil headphone audio has always been universally good. I've owned some Bose and Sony 'studio reference' (whatever that means) headphones that were quite good, but they are designed more for listening to music than the spoken voice; too much bass and too wide of a response that can actually make voice communications sound 'muddy' to my ears. Great for listening to Beyoncé's latest over-produced off-key extravaganza, not so good for trying to dig callsigns out of the S7 noise floor.
Some of the best headphones I've used are not headphones at all. These are C. Crane earbuds. Crane builds them to emphasize voice communications, and they work great. They are my go-to 'headphones' for use with my radios during portable operations. The other good thing about Crane's earbuds is that they are cheap - about $20 a set. This means I can buy them in bulk so when my dog chews up a set I've got another sitting in the drawer ready to go.
But in my shack, when operating on HF, my long-time go-to headset is the classic Kenwood HS-5.
Kenwood has been making these headphones probably longer than I've been a ham, and you can't get more old school; an on-ear design, vinyl covered dual spring-steel headband, lots of cloth sleeved wiring, and a long obsolete 1/4" single ring audio plug. Plop these on your head and your hand starts instinctively reaching for a CW straight key. They are that old school.
But the Kenwood HS-5 'cans' (an old time term for headphones) do two things better than most. First, they fit well. They may be a bit heavier than modern all-plastic headsets, but they are very comfortable on my oversized noggin. They balance well and you simply don't notice the weight. But most important, they sound great! Easily as good as any Heil product I've used, and perhaps a bit better. Kenwood set the response on these headphones to emphasize the spoken voice (vs. a broader response for 'studio' headsets). I hear voices on HF better with these 'phones than most others.
Some folks complain about the 1/4" plug, and I guess that's a valid gripe, but there's easy fixes out there. You can buy a 1/4"-to-1/8" adapter on Amazon, or you can simply clip off the 1/4" plug and solder on a 1/8" plug. But I don't want Kenwood tinkering with the design to 'improve' them. There's no updating necessary. These headphones are a wonderful homage to the days of classic ham radio, when you had things like external VFOs and tube finals, and they still work great in today's modern SDR world.
We're in what I'll call the 'post-Field Day, mid-summer ham radio doldrums', and for weeks now there's not been much ham radio stuff to report on. Down here in Gawga the weather has been hot, mostly dry, and buggy. Real buggy. So buggy that it's limited my outdoor operating activities. Then the XYL and I contracted COVID. While it didn't feel much worse than a mild cold, it did knock us back for almost two weeks, and we're still dealing with some lingering symptoms like congestion and coughing. Parallel to that, we launched on a major landscaping project to finally make our backyard habitable. What was supposed to be a little over a week job turned into a month-plus slog as the landscaper dealt with weather, material shortages and other demands on his time (he's a one-man show, so he works slow). Then a visit to the orthopedist for some nagging back issues threw me for a loop. What I hoped would be some simple muscle pain has turned out to be scoliosis, arthritis and a pinched nerve. That led to a canceled camping trip that we had both been looking forward to.
Slow progress, but progress
Getting old sucks.
So on to sunnier topics...
Where I work (aka 'The World's Busiest Airport') senior management made a long overdue decision to go with a new maintenance management system. Part of this adoption will require provisioning the field crews with tablets that they'll use to respond to work orders and do inspections. The tablet of choice, and the one we steered them to, is the iPad. The software developer's apps just seem to work better on iOS devices. I'm not an Apple guy, but the XYL is. In fact, she's got a stack of old iPads sitting in a closet. Most of them were still perfectly serviceable, so I thought I'd grab one or two of the newest, update them, and use them to test and train on the new software. No such luck. The app requires at least iOS 15. The most current OS that could be loaded on any of these old iPads was iOS 14.x. The app wouldn't run. Damn. I needed to replicate exactly what the field crews were seeing on their devices so I could help train and troubleshoot, so an Android tablet wouldn't do. I needed an iPad, and I needed one fast. Double damn. After a few days of hunting around for the best deal, I settled on a new iPad Air. I found I could buy one on-line from the Army and Air Force Exchange System (AAFES) - one of the benefits of being an Army retiree - at a $200 discount and no sales tax.
Of course - of course! - the iPad got ham radio apps loaded on it. In fact, this is what the XYL suspected I really wanted it for. No honey, it's not. I had better uses for that money, plus I'm an Android and Windows guy (I love my Surface Pro). But I figure that as long as I've got the thing, why not try out some ham radio apps. My good friend Joe, KI4ASK, a long time Mac and iOS addict/partisan/evangelist, has been singing the praises of a new iOS app for the Icom IC-705 (and IC-7610 and 9700) called SDR-Control for iOS. The app is written by Marcus Roskosch, who apparently designed the software interface for Flex radios, and a number of other highly regarded applications. I guess he knows what he's doing. I'm still in the learning stages with this app, but I have to agree with Joe, it's slick. While I can't say I'll ever use it for La-Z-Boy QSOs, I was sitting in said chair a few nights ago and just doing some SWL scanning while connected to my IC-705 via wi-fi . Lots of fun. I may have more on this at a later date, but for now I'll let Josh at Ham Radio Crash Course give you the rundown:
I make no secret of the fact that I'm a Chameleon Antenna fanboy. What they make works, is rugged as hell, is well documented, and the company stands behind their products. A man has to have a vice, and since I don't smoke or drink (much), I decided my vice will be Chameleon antennas. Last year Chameleon came out with their Tactical Delta Loop (TDL) and it caught my interest. The TDL was an immediate hit and Chameleon has had trouble keeping it in stock, but recently I found that the Atlanta HRO store had one available, so I grabbed it. I've used Chameleon's vertical antenna systems for years, but I was looking for a portable system that was quick to set up, didn't require ground radials, had more gain than a vertical, and could be rotated to take advantage of the improved gain. The TDL is an odd looking contraption - two 17' telescoping whip antennas set in a 'V' configuration (think giant TV rabbit ears) with a section of wire running between them. The antenna is fed at the base using one of Chameleon's standard matching transformers. The antenna kit comes with a ground spike to support it, but I've chosen to use my surveyor tripod, which gets the whole antenna setup further off the ground (improving the take-off angle a bit) and makes it easier to rotate. I've only tested it a few times, and only with my Elecraft KX2, but it seems to work quite well on 10 - 40 meters. The tuner in the KX2 easily finds matches on those bands, and can usually find a match on 75 meters, but it's a struggle. My real goal is to set this up with my IC-705 and test it with Winlink and JS8CALL. I think it has a lot of potential as an EMCOMM antenna.
Chameleon TDL set up for a local 10 meter net
Well that's it for now. I need to get back to my daily routine of fighting COVID, doing back stretches and praying for rain. I've been running the sprinklers so much on my new sod that I'm afraid to open my water bill. So c'mon Mother Nature, how's about a few days of light but steady rain? Pleeeze!