05 May 2024

Old Radios and Misplaced Nostalgia?

There's a style of radio that has fascinated me for decades. I love the concept of the manpack VHF and HF rigs, a design we first saw in WWII as the SCR-300, reached a design peak in the 1960s with the PRC-77, and culminates today in radios like the Harris PRC-160 HF/VHF manpack

SCR-300 in use during WWII

AN/PRC-25/77 as used in Vietnam

Current production Harris PRC-160. 
Twenty thousand dollars of glorious battle-ready manpack radio technology. And you can't have one.

For years I've idealized this style of radio, and pursued US and foreign models on the used market. But why a manpack? They really don't perform any better than table-top models. In fact, in the Amateur Radio realm they are more likely to perform worse - low TX power, poorer receiver performance, cooling issues, no internal tuner, too many accessory cables, and more. I look beyond all that to the unique and fascinating mash-up of technologies that are used in successful military and commercial manpack designs, designs that can overcome many of the limitations I've listed and provide good mid-range TX performance, good receiver performance, robust tuners, robust weatherproofing and long battery life. All in a package small and light enough to toss in a backpack, go for a walk, and make contacts. 

I've got a small collection of both military models (PRC-77, Czech RF-10) and commercial models (Vertex Standard VX-1210, Yaesu FT-70G), But I'm bumping up against some inevitable issues - most of his hardware is 50+ years old, no longer performs as it originally did, and is not really worth the expense to keeping running. That means when one of these radios dies, its next trip will be to a landfill or electronics recycling center.

Twenty five years ago manpack radios were less difficult to find. There were more of them on the market because there were more manufacturers in the market. Additionally, embedded encryption and military only waveforms were not in wide use like we see today. As encrypted systems became the norm, spurred on by America's conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of cyber warfare, the supply of surplus systems started to dry up. The available older systems were snapped up by collectors and reenactors, or sent for recycling. The newer systems could not be released to the surplus market. These encrypted systems, by law, can not be sold to the public. Instead, the radios had to be ground up or melted down to destroy the embedded encryption systems. 

This means that there's really no military manpack radios of recent manufacture available on the surplus market. Some manufacturers like Harris, Barrett and Codan do make civilianized versions of their high end rigs - radios that lack the sensitive embedded encryption. These are designed for sale to organizations like NGOs (UN relief agencies, Red Cross, etc.) and are legal for civilians to own. However, these radios are extremely rare on the used market, and when they do show up are too expensive to consider. As I write this one online vendor, Green Tip Surplus, offers a used Harris RF-7800 radio (civilian version of the PRC-160) starting at $8,500, with no batteries or accessories. And I have no doubt it will sell at that price.


Codan Sentry manpack. Somewhat less ouchy than a Harris 7800, but still painful
at over $6,000 for a new stripped out model

Ham radio manufacturers have gone part way down this path with a few of their radios. I've already mentioned the Vertex Standard VX-1210 (originally made by Yaesu) and the Yaesu FT-70G. These were radios designed for commercial and military markets but bled over into the ham radio market. Other kinda' sorta' manpack rigs designed specifically for the ham radio market include the Icom IC-703, the Yaesu FT-817/818, the Elecraft KX2 and, of course, the current Icom IC-705. Of all of these, the IC-703 came closest to my idealized version of the manpack rig. Icom provided a whole host of manpack accessories, including an internal tuner, direct connect HF antennas, battery packs, and a very well designed backpack. Many hoped (expected?) the IC-705 would just build on the concept of the IC-703, but port over the outstanding digital HF performance of the IC-7300. Alas, while the IC-705 is a great radio, it's also a radio that reflects some missed opportunities, particularly in the awkward physical design and the lack of an internal tuner. Icom does make a well designed backpack for the IC-705 (the LC-192), but it's sized to fit a Japanese school girl and not much use as a serious manpack container.

When the dust settles, we're left with what many would consider a dark horse candidate. The Elecraft KX2. The dark horse perception is odd, because Elecraft actually advertises this rig as suitable for HF handheld operation. This is made possible, in large part, by the excellent internal tuner Elecraft makes for this little rig. 

From Elecraft's own website. This KX2 was designed
with handheld HF operations in mind

The KX2 isn't particularly rugged, and it's very vulnerable to water intrusion (the case is just a stamped metal box with lots of openings), but the performance is world class.

There may be some interesting developments in the manpack HF field just on the horizon. One effort that is beyond the vaporware stage is the Lab599 TX-500MP. This was teased out earlier last year, and one or two pre-production models have seen daylight. Lab599 is a Russian company, but it moved quickly to distance itself from Putin and his antics in Ukraine. The company moved its production to the UAE and seems to have found some stability. The TX-500 has developed something of a cult following, and the company responds well to input and puts out regular firmware updates, always a positive sign. 

There's not a whole lot of info out on the TX-500MP yet other than some basic specs, but Lab599 does keep the user community updated on its development status. The radio looks like a channelized version of the TX-500 with an integrated battery pack and antenna tuner. There has even been talk of a digital soundcard interface. In terms of a real product that may see the light of day in the next year or so, this looks like the best bet.

The other developments are merely speculative. Icom recently teased out that there's something new coming. They won't say what, but it likely won't be a new HT. It may be a new UHF/VHF mobile rig, since the ID-5100 is getting a bit long in the tooth (but is still one of the best dual band mobiles on the market). Or, it could be a new HF/VHF/UHF portable rig. Icom did something odd last year. They pulled the IC-7100 from production, then within literally a few months they put it back into production and acted like nothing every happened. It was a very odd sequence of events, and Icom never commented on what was going on behind the scenes. The IC-7100 is a very nice radio, and it was a strong seller for Icom, but it too is getting long in the tooth, and its DSTAR capabilities are a bit dated. The switcheroo Icom went through may well signal that Icom had the IC-7100's replacement about to enter the pipeline, but hit a snag and decided to keep the 7100 going just a bit longer. So, Icom may be poised to release information on this new radio at Hamvention in Xenia, OH in a few weeks. Fingers crossed that whatever they do release is a good manpack platform.

This last speculation is way out there. Yaesu killed off its FT-818 last year and there's been no discussion of a replacement. Yaesu simply can't let this gap in their product line continue. QRP activities like SOTA and POTA are sweeping the ham radio community, and in the US most of the spend to fill that demand has been on the Icom IC-705. Yaesu can't let Icom go unchallenged in this market. Or maybe they can. In the past decade or so, Yaesu seems to have gotten pretty good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as reflected in some pretty clumsy hardware releases.

Some may be saying, "But Brian, what about the Chinese?" OK, I'll admit that the soon-to-be-released Xeigu 6200 looks pretty neat, but if you've read any of my posts over the past few years you'll know that I don't spend money on Chinese products. 

We'll check back on this subject after Hamvention. I'm hoping we'll have one or more really good manpack releases to talk about. Until then, 73!

W8BYH out

No comments:

Post a Comment