Last Modified: April 13, 2013
Contents: Basics; Your Most Important Purchase; Your First Radio; Don't Ask!; Play With It First!; New Versus New; Pricing; Adapting Gear; Used Commercial VHF/UHF Equipment; Estate Sales; Your Next Vehicle;
Amateur radio operators are notoriously cheap!
After 40 plus years as a licensed amateur radio operator, if I have learned nothing else, it is this simple fact: Ninety nine percent of the time, you get exactly what you ask for! I've also learned that there is a vast difference between being frugal, and being cheap! Frugal means you're on a budget, and you want to get the best bang for your money. Nothing wrong with that. However, being cheap means you'll buy whatever comes along with a low price tag, in hopes of making do. What follows are a few examples of both scenarios.
I do have a brand preference, and perhaps you do too. However, sticking with a specific brand just because it's your preference can get you into trouble. Further, buying something just because your best friend convinced you to is just as unrewarding! If that wasn't enough, a lot of purchases are made because of popularity. Even worse (if that's possible), is buying into the exaggerated claims made by dealers and/or manufacturers alike.
The way around this dilemma, is to bone-up on your knowledge of all things amateur. This is especially true of antenna theory, network theory, and even lowly knowledge of Dr. Ohm's law! So, buy yourself an ARRL Handbook, and start reading!
This site is dedicated to a best foot forward mobile operation, so I deem it prudent to offer some advice towards that end. As I openly stated above, I do have a brand preference, and that preference is Icom. That is not to say, that Yaesu, Kenwood, or Alinco products are inferior. What is says is, the features offered suit my type of operation better than the other brands do. Aside from the features, ease of menu selection, physical look, even the display color all count toward one's preference. However, there is one thing that all mobile transceivers connect to, and that's an antenna!
Your Most Important Purchase
There are not enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe the importance of your choice of mobile antennas. Not just to receive or transmit performance, but to the enjoyment of the hobby. Yes, it is the single, most important, mobile purchase you'll ever make, bar none, your transceiver choice notwithstanding! This said, I'm not naïve, and I am aware that not everyone chooses to put their best foot forward. That's fine too, but ask yourself this question before you put your money down on that no-hole mounted, spouse-approved, short and stubby wonder; Am I being frugal, or cheap? If you have to justify your antenna purchase by bragging about the DX contacts you've made, or how low the SWR is, or how pleased your wife is with your no-holes install, you bought cheap.
Buying advice? Buy the best antenna money can buy! Mount it in the most advantageous location you can, even if that requires holes to be drilled. That's being frugal! Just so you'll know what to look for, here are a few pointers.
Don't buy any antenna with large metal end caps. While the coil Q may be advertised as higher than the competition, once those metal end caps are installed, the coil Q drops drastically, to perhaps 30% or less of its static value.
Don't buy any antenna with a coil larger than 4 inches. While they appear to operate well on the lower bands, large coils have more distributed capacitance, and hence lower Q on the higher bands especially when short tapped! The optimal coil size for overall efficiency is about 3 inches.
Don't buy any antenna with a coil TPI (turns per inch) greater than 10.
Don't buy any antenna with a coil wound with anything smaller than #14, and preferably #12.
If you just have to have 160 meters, here is something to keep in mind. An antenna capable of operating on 160, will require an inductive reactance nearly 5 times that required for 80 meters. This means they have specific matching concerns which need to be addressed. By the way, 160 add-on coils are available for most sturdily-built, 80 through 10 meter antennas.
Sturdiness does count! One of the best ways to maximize efficiency is to install a large cap hat at the very top of a mast, typically 3 to 4 feet long. Lessor made antennas cannot support the weight, or wind loading.
Be leery of antennas advertised to cover 80 through 6 meters, or worse, 160 through 6 meters! There is no practical way to accomplish this feat, without additional losses occurring.
Your First Radio
Let's face a simple fact. Nowadays, almost all new amateur radio operators start out with a Technician's license. This limits the frequencies (bands) operators can use, and for the most part, that means they're relegated to the VHF bands, although some HF coverage is provided. Once they get their license, out to the marketplace they go to purchase their first radio! The biggest mistake these newcomers make is to purchase a handheld, FM transceiver as their fist radio! Do yourself a big favor, and do not make this confining mistake!
All of us should strive to upgrade our licenses, and when we purchase a handheld, we severely hamper those efforts. While FM operation can be fun, the truth is it is very limiting in scope. For about the same money, an all-band, all-mode transceiver can be purchased. This will allow you to be not only frugal, but will allow you to operate those few HF places allotted to the Technician license.
Here is something else to think about. There are both HF voice, and CW frequencies allocated to the Technician class licensee. Although Morse code is no longer a prerequisite in obtaining an amateur radio license, this fact alone shouldn't preclude you from learning it. However, an FM only transceiver (or worse a handheld) certainly will.
Just for the record; DX contacts are much easier to make when using CW than SSB, as any DX chaser will tell you.
The most-often ask questions is this one; Which radio should I buy? This is the best way I know of to become disappointed, as no two of us have the same likes, and dislikes. It is, on the other hand, fair to ask someone what they use themselves. Ask enough folks, and you'll start to get an appreciation of the truth. Personally, I always ask what they don't like, as you tend to get a more truthful answer.
The Don't Ask rule applies to on-line reviews as well. Most of the time, the rating given is based on ownership of only a few days, or weeks at most. These are mixed in with reviews from folks who have never owned the gear in question! Adding insult, some unscrupulous manufacturers plant fictitious reviews, both good and bad, in an effort to make themselves look good, and their competitors look bad. As I alluded to above, it is sort of like divorce court!
One more thing to keep in mind. There are those folks who develop buyer's remorse and/or don't read the instructions and/or can't comprehend what they do read. As a result, they post on-line reviews that do not reflect the real reason for the remorse in the first place. Don't let such reviews affect your choice of product.
Play With It First!
Buying radio gear, sight unseen, using an on-line auction site is a questionable undertaking. Yes, there are some very honest folks selling all sorts of items who are reliable and honest. But, for everyone of those, there are about a thousand that are as crooked as a pretzel! I seldom buy things at auction, but when I do, I know exactly what I am buying. I don't buy cheaply, I buy frugally! Part of the issue is simply this: If it is broken, can I fix it? If it needs modification, am I capable of making the mod myself? Are replacement parts available? The list is endless, but unless you know all of the answers, forget about on-line auction sites, no matter what their business policies are.
Play with it first is a must when buying used gear. Even if you personally know who you're dealing with. Make sure you try all modes, all bands, and if possible by on-air contacts. While you're doing so, make sure there aren't any unauthorized mods. It is hard to tell sometimes, but there are two common ones. The first is resetting the drive, and final bias just to gain a few tenths of a dB output. If the radio puts out more than its advertised output into a known good dummy load, don't buy it! The opposite is true too. If it doesn't putout its rated power, don't buy it!
The other is out-of-band transmit capability. Good, bad, or indifferent, a lot of the current amateur population are revamped CBers. Almost to a man, they always use the I'm a MARS member phrase to justify the mod, when in reality very few are. My advise is to shy away.
Play with it first extends to new gear as well. That's why it is always best to go to your nearest amateur radio dealer, and play with the goods (if they won't let you, go someplace else!). Look at the brochures, look through the manual, and if you don't understand something, ask! I should mention, that not all amateur radio dealer personnel are technically competent, and they may in fact know less than you do! Further, the attitude you have to deal with during your purchase, can be an omen of what attitude you'll face if there is ever a warranty issue! If it is bad, it will only get worse at warranty time.
Speaking of which, if you don't read anything else before you buy, at least take time to read the warranty. You should also discuss baby-failure modes, should the gear die a day to two later. Typically the answer is going to be, send it to the factory, which to me isn't an option two days after my purchase. This also brings up another issue. If the gear you played with worked to your satisfaction, buy it instead of a brand-new, factory-boxed unit. If you do opt for the latter, then unpack it, set it up, and make sure everything operates like it should, especially if you don't live close by. Best to be sure, than to be sorry!
Some mobile radios do not have 60 meters built in. The Icom IC-706 is a good example. You can get the radio to transmit on 60 meters, by removing a diode from the programming board. You loose the band-edge beeps in the process, but that isn't the real problem; it is the bandwidth of the bandpass filters. Transmitting on 60 meters causes the filter components to get warm, hot actually, and with predictable results sooner or later. The bottom line is, just because it appears to work, doesn't mean much in the long run.
New Versus Used
I own a 25 year old, Icom IC-25H, 2 meter transceiver that I bought new in 1976. It doesn't get the daily use it used to get, but is still works well. It is fairly clean, and could almost pass for new. It isn't worth much these days, but operational wise, it is as good as anything you can buy new. Would a new one be better? Could be, if the new model had some needed feature, like GPS capability, or perhaps more memory. Is there a drawback? Yes there is, and it applies to any piece of amateur radio gear, even some fairly late models ones. To wit...
It wasn't all that long ago, that vacuum tubes were as ubiquitous as bias-ply tires. Solid state gear was available, like the Atlas 180 shown right, but the vast majority had tubes, at least in the final. That fact has changed! I don't know of any modern amateur gear which uses vacuum tubes, save for legal-limit amplifiers. And even those will soon go the way of the dodo bird, which brings us to the crux of the problem; nonobtainium replacements!
One of the best examples is the lowly sweep tube. Drake, Swan, Heathkit, SBE, Yaesu, and a bunch of others used sweep tubes for finals. All sweep tube production ceased in the US nearly 20 years ago. There are a couple of companies making them in the Pacific area, but for the most part these audio equivalents (?) won't work. The old workhorse 572B is only made in China now. Their quality stinks, and the Chinese 811As, and 3-500Zs aren't much better. Some Russian tubes are good, some not, and who can say how much longer they'll be in production? And, think about this. There are no more new, American-made, glass-enveloped tubes, of any description being made. Even some of the earlier ceramic tubes, like the 8874, 8875, and 8876 are long since gone. Buying gear with these nonobtainium finals is an iffy situation.
The same scenario goes for solid state devices too. For example, the Atlas mentioned used a pair of CDC50s, and they haven't been made since 1983. Their closest equivalent are not plug and play, as they require major circuit modifications. Another good example are genuine, Motorola MRF454s power transistors, which haven't been made in over 10 years. Many of the early mobile amplifiers used them (Metron, TenTec, early SGCs, et. al.). Sometimes their replacements (2SC2290) will work, but most of the time they won't. Even worse, there is often enough difference between manufacturers that supposedly identical parts may not plug and play.
The bottom line is, be very careful buying any tube gear, especially all tube transceivers. It pays to remember, that glass enveloped tubes, do not age well sitting on a shelf, unused. As a result, just because you bought that replacement as NOS (New Old Stock) doesn't mean it will play! As I mentioned above, is you're truly able to fix and/or adapt old gear, then perhaps you're being frugal. If you can't, then your purchase was a cheap one, and you deserve what you got.
Amateur radio gear isn't made of solid gold, albeit some high-end units are priced as if they were. Most of the time, the more you pay, the more bells and whistles you get. The actual difference you pay between dealers for some specific new transceiver is all but moot. That's no surprise I suspect. What is a surprise, is the monies some amateurs will pay for used gear. Gear, incidentally, they've never seen, and never played with!
One of Kenwood's less-than-stellar transceivers was the TS430. The MSRP was $400 without power supply, or optional filters. Finals are extremely rare and expensive, and only after-market filters are available. Yet, these 20+ year old transceivers often fetch over $500—a ludicrous price! For just a bit more, you can buy a brand-new Alinco DX-SR8T that will run circles around it! What's more, it is 1/4 the size!
Here is some sage advice to add to the Play With It First. If the transceive in question has been out of production longer than 10 years, forget it! Don't know when it was produced? Then search for it on RigPix.
This subject doesn't really fall under Buying Advice, but it is as good of a place as any to broach the subject. It is also a subject which dates me a bit. Stepping back to the early days of amateur radio (to me at least), there wasn't what we know today as a transceiver. Indeed, the transmitter, and the receiver were separate pieces of hardware. In most cases, they were made by difference manufacturers, and it was left up to the operator to do the interfacing. This often required home brewing the necessary transfer relay and/or building the interface cables, with only the respective schematics to point the way. If you didn't know how to do the job, you went to your Elmer for advice. Ah, alas! That is not the case today.
Since I mentioned one above, let's look at the Heathkit SB200. Without getting into a lengthy dissertation, let's just say the keying circuit was based around grid-block keying. What this means is, the keying circuit was about -125 volts DC or so. Connecting one up to a modern transceiver will result in lots of smoke being loosed! Even then, the ALC voltage is far in excess of what modern transceivers are capable of handling. About the only recourse is to go to folks like Harbach Electronics who have the boards, hardware, cabling, etc. to get the job done. This harkens back to the previous sections; are you capable of making these modifications without help? If you are, you're buying frugal. If not, well, you get the picture!
SDR (Software Defined Radios) don't fit the Buying Advice either, but I mention them for a reason. For the most part, modern transceivers are hardware supported, SDRs. As such, they have a variety of interface capabilities, which is a good thing for the mobile operator. Antenna controllers often use the capabilities, as do other ancillary devices. Older radios seldom have the ability to do any meaningful interfacing, which can be an important consideration at buying time.
Used Commercial VHF/UHF Equipment
Some 25 years ago, almost every business relied on two-way radio systems, including trunking systems, repeater systems, and special frequency assignments to carry on their day-to-day business. That business model has long-since been supplemented by cellphones. They're cheaper, provide a larger coverage area (virtually world-wide), and are highly portable. So, ask yourself where all of those two-way radios go? You guessed it, to the on-line auction sights!
Similar to amateur VHF transceivers, commercial VHF ones made in the last 25 years or so, are programmable. Unfortunately, you can't do so using the front panel of the radio, which means, you have to have special programming software, and the appropriate interface cable. Sometimes, the software is in public domain, but most of the time it is not. So your cheap purchase isn't of much use as first thought. Besides that, most commercial radios will need realigning, and that requires a whole lot more tools than just an SWR bridge!
The buying advice is simple. Unless you have the requisite test gear (service monitor at a minimum), and knowledge (let's don't forget the necessary expensive manuals), you'd best stay away from used business two-way gear, whatever it is.
I've learned my lesson! Within the last four years, I have been asked to help liquidate the equipment of several silent key (sk) amateurs. In some cases, it has been rewarding. I've been given transceivers, towers, antennas, and just about every kind of ancillary gear you can think of. That fact was never my intent! Rather, it was an attempt to help the surviving spouse to get on with their lives, after the meridian of death, as it were. The reason I bring up estate sales will become apparent.
One (sk) owned five HF amplifiers: Two ALS-600s, one ALS-500, one THP 2.5KL, and a Henry 2K Ultra. Both ALS-600s required repair, and the total bill for both was almost $900, plus shipping. The ALS-500 would have cost nearly $600 to repair, and was therefore junked. The THP 2.5 KL worked, except the interface cables were missing. Replacing them cost $190. The Henry worked just fine, even though it had not been used in almost 10 years!
There were three transceivers: An Icom IC-756Pro, and Icom IC-756 Pro II, and an Icom IC-746Pro. Every one of the Icoms had a problem with their build in auto-couplers, and both 756s had blown finals! Cosmetically, I'd rate them all a 5.
By the time all was said and done, my expenditures was almost $4,000! It took me nearly 5 months to sell all I could, give away the junk, and in a few cases, donate a few usable items to a local college radio club. The bottom line was, I netted an MFJ watt meter ($129 brand new), and a W51 tower, less the base support (≈$1,700). That wattmeter, and tower (remember, less the base) ended up costing me almost $2,000!
While estate sales can be rewarding, it is difficult to assess any internal problems such as the aforementioned internal auto tuner issues. The bottom line is, you don't know if you're buying frugally, or cheap!
Your Next Vehicle
Most amateur operators buy a vehicle without any thought of installing radio gear into it. What follows are a few pointers to think about.
• Family needs are typically number one selection parameter, as it should be.
• Spousal approval is important too, especially if the spouse is the primary driver.
• Don't let color and accessories (or lack of them) carry more weight than the ability to operate amateur radio while underway.
• Don't lease! Leasing is the most expensive way to purchase a new vehicle, bar none! Think long and hard about a personal lease, unless you have a viable way to write off the expense.
• If you opt for an SUV, van, crossover, or any vehicle without a rear overhang (no trunk), proper antenna mounting will be difficult. Think ground losses!
• Buy a trailer towing package, even if you don't intend to tow a trailer. Think bigger alternator, battery, and transmission and oil coolers, equating to longer life.
• The best of all worlds, buy a four-door pickup truck with a metal bed. That's a bit hard nowadays, as most manufacturers are switching over the composite materials to save weight.
• Lastly, remember, no vehicle sold in the United States is required to meet FCC Part 15 rules.
• Don't buy a hybrid, of any kind! No hybrid, part hybrid, all electric, or any vehicle with more than an SLI battery on board, should be a no-purchase, if for no other reason than RFI issues. In other words, any vehicle with a propulsion battery, a digital controller to drive the auxiliary (assist) electric motor, will cause enough RFI egress to virtually eliminate the operation of HF amateur radio gear. In fact, some are so RFI noisy, even FM operation is limited!