21 August 2022

Radios That Have Impressed Me

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!

W8BYH out

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