Deciding which Ham Radio to buy

There are a ton of great ham radio options out there. Where do you start and what separates the best from the rest?
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Ham radios have made some tremendous advancements since their inception, but where exactly do you start when you want to pick one up today?

Dual band. Tri band. APRS. Something called D-STAR. VHF. UHF… a whole slew of options will be thrown your way when you’re figuring out which ham radio to buy.

I’m a licensed ham radio operator (call sign KN6JYA) who went through the Goodkin Ham Radio Course (which I recommend). And special thanks to Naomi and Norm Goodkin who helped review this article.

Here’s what you should know about buying your first ham radio… in 5 minutes.

Getting the most out of your ham radio

No matter which radio you decide to buy, you should strongly consider purchasing a new antenna, ideally one that can hang above your home outdoors. The antenna that comes included with your radio is often not made to cover a wide range of frequencies and is not particularly effective on ham radios. An antenna upgrade can go a long way towards improving signal quality and strength.

Diamond makes the SRH77CA for $25 and is a nice option for handhelds.

An Ed Fong DBJ-1 can be had for less than $40 and will dramatically improve your radio’s signal quality by potentially dozens of miles. The trade-off is the DBJ-1 must be mounted somewhere outside, about 20 to 30 feet high (above your roof) to be most effective. A roll up J-pole antenna is also another viable option to improve signal strength.

What determines the cost of a Ham Radio?

You could spend anywhere from $25 to $2,500 when buying your first ham radio. These are the factors that will often influence a radio’s price:

  1. Display
    A ham radio with a higher quality screen, such as a TFT display is going to cost more than something with an older, analog interface.
  2. GPS Technology (APRS)
    Many newer radios are integrated with APRS technology, which in a nutshell allows you to track and transmit your location via a GPS signal integrated with your radio. 
  3. Dual Receive
    Having dual receivers gives you the ability to receive on two channels at once. For instance, you could make one frequency your “priority” channel while monitoring a second, “channel watchchannel, switching over to the “channel watch” when it receives a signal. This is a feature that will increase the price of a radio.
  4. Bluetooth
    Bluetooth offers you the option to use your radio “hands-free,” but can also drive the price up. Bluetooth features can sometimes be a bit finicky with 3rd party Bluetooth headphones—Apple Earpods for example—some will report them working on the Anytone but not the FT3D.

Mobile vs. Handheld radio

Here’s a ham radio you could buy … if it were 1980. Courtesy World Radio History

To be clear, a mobile ham radio and a handheld ham radio are not the same thing. A handheld radio, while technically “mobile” is a ham radio you operate, well, in your hand. Mobile ham radios are designated as mobile as they’re often mounted to a car and are a radio you would not operate in your hand. This article is focused more on handheld radios.

Understanding what ham radio band is

VHF for ham radios refers to the 2m band, 144-148 MHz. UHF refers to the 70cm band, 420-450 MHz. Dual band radios usually cover these two bands. Most ham radio communications for technical class operators will be on the VHF 2-meter band, which is the range of frequencies between 144MHz to 148MHz.

These are some of the most popular ham radio bands:

  • 2m
  • 70cm
  • 1.25m

What is a dual band ham radio?

Nice look at the touchscreen on the Yaesu FT3DR. This is a $359 radio.

Don’t freak out but it’s highly likely you already own two dual band radios—the radio in your car (AM/FM) and the cell phone that you carry (you don’t think about it, but your phone is using radio signals to communicate with towers in your area). A dual band radio is simply any device that allows you to access two radio bands, for instance the 2m band and the 70cm band.

Most affordable ham radios are dual-band and are sufficient for beginners.

Buying your first ham radio

The UV-5 is the cheapest handheld ham radio at about $25 and is often considered a good starter radio. Even though the UV-5 and the Yaesu FT-4XR use the same chip, the FT-4XR is $50 more and is overall a higher quality radio with better components and it has filtering that improves things like rejecting unwanted signals. The only flaw in the FT-4XR is in the user interface where you select the repeater tone. It defaults to setting a receive tone, which is just the opposite of what you need on most repeaters.

Sticking with the trend of handheld radios, here are some of the best you’re likely to come across:

RadioBluetoothCP4MTFT DisplayGPSPriceNotes
Kenwood TH72YesNoYesYes$399A more affordable, less battery-draining option than its older brother the TH74, and less complex to operate
Yaesu FT3DRYesYesYesYes$360Modern display. Great form factor. Bluetooth. Superb audio quality. Made in Japan
Anytone AT-D878YesYesYesYes$210Sturdy, high quality ham
with all the features. Made by QiXiang
Technology in China.
ICOM V86NoNoNoNo$230Powerful, single band
(VHF) radio with good
battery life
Yaesu VX6NoNoNoNo$265Tri-band radio with
fewer features but allows
access to 1.25m band
Baofeng UV-5NoNoNoNo$29.99Entry level radio
for beginners to
experiment
An overview of some of the most popular handheld ham radios to buy

A few terms to know

Airband

Side by side of two handheld radios
Only one of these (left) is a radio intended to access frequencies reserved for amateur radio operators. The radio on the right is the Yaesu FT550 reserved for the airband.

If you Google “buying a ham radio” it’s likely you’ll be served ads on radios that do not access the amateur radio band but are rather intended to access frequencies dedicated to civil air patrol, otherwise known as the “airband.” Ham radios do not allow you to transmit on the airband and any attempts to do so would result in intermodulation distortion.

Trunk Tracking or Trunkers

What a $650 handheld police scanner looks like.

Another misconception regarding ham radios is that they can be used as police scanners. Police scanners—often referred to as “trunkers”—are trunked radios, meaning they can decode the signal from a police radio scanner. If you just want to listen to police communications, you can bypass the ham radio and look at buying something like the Uniden SDS 100. Note: many other public services use encrypted signals, as well.

DMR

Digital Mobile Radio is a standard created in 2005 to establish voice, data, and signal quality standards using TDMA technology. This provides more quality in a smaller “signal space” overall marking your radio as having a better quality signal.

C4FM

At the risk of being cursory, C4FM or Continuous 4 Level Frequency Modulation, is a more reliable method of broadcasting a digital signal due to its low bit error rate. It means you’re going to get a higher quality, better sounding signal due to the quality and high amount of data it can transmit.

Squelch

I mentioned CTCSS, or Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch above. CTCSS is a more specific type of squelch, which in essence is the ability to mute or lower the volume of a certain channel. You’d use the squelch while scanning for signals or when you don’t want to listen to other people on a channel.

QTH

QTH is slang for your location, either your coordinates or something more general.

Final Minute

Think of the situation where you might want to use a radio and start there. Instead of looking at what is most popular, ask what those in your area are using. Doing so will at least narrow down whether you need a mobile or handheld rig, and also whether you feel the need to invest in something more robust with the features to boot.

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