HAM Radio 101

So, You’re Ready to Buy Your First HF Transceiver. Now What?

Whether you just got your license, or you have been in the hobby for a while, your interests may be leading you to explore the HF bands. For many of us, HF radio was the reason we got interested in the hobby in the first place.

There are a lot of things to think about when you are considering buying your first HF transceiver. With prices all over the place and so many features and options, it can be difficult to wrap your head around where to start. My goal with this article is not to compare each HF radio that is available today, but rather to create a foundation for you to decide what rig is the best choice for you. We will also look at some of the accessories that you will need to get started and help make your on-the-air adventure a success.

Budget—How much are you willing or able to spend on your new rig? You can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. But remember, it’s not just the radio that you will be buying. You will need an antenna, a power supply, coax, and possibly other accessories such as a wattmeter, antenna tuner, antenna analyzer, lightning protection, and grounding. The list can almost seem endless. Many will start with an inexpensive rig and graduate to something else later, while others will want something with more features. Remember, more features equate to more money.

What rigs do your friends have?—One way to look for the right radio is to find out what your friends are using. This may give you the opportunity to sit down in front of the rig and put it through its paces. Ask questions like: What made you decide on this radio? Would you buy it again? What do you like or dislike about the rig?

Reviews—Reviews are a great way to find out information about radios you may be interested in. QST magazine, which is published by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), regularly has reviews of new rigs. Another resource is YouTube. Channels such as Ham Radio Crash Course, Ham Radio 2.0, and a host of others have reviews from time to time. Still another resource is the internet. Websites such as eHam.net as well as forums on sites like RadioReference.com, in addition to occasional reviews on OnAllBands and customer feedback at DXEngineering.com, can provide insight into what other hams have experienced with a particular rig.

Where will you use your new rig?—Where do you plan to operate from? Are you the outdoor type who wants to take your rig into the field for Parks on the Air (POTA) or Summits on the air (SOTA)? Maybe you spend most of your day in your car and would like to operate mobile. Or perhaps you prefer the comforts of home and would rather operate indoors. Answering these questions will help you determine the rig that’s right for you at the present time.

Features—Selecting a new rig can feel overwhelming. Radios today offer a wide variety of features. Ask yourself: What features do you want in your new rig? Do you prefer a rig that covers HF and the VHF/UHF bands all in one box? Do you want a 100-watt radio or is the challenge of QRP (low power) more your speed? How about a panadapter or a rig with two receivers? Should your new rig have a built-in sound card? How about a built-in antenna tuner?

Antennas—Your antenna is the most important part of your radio. Some would say that it is literally 90 percent of your radio. A good antenna will give you hours of fun with your new rig while a poor antenna may leave you frustrated. 

There are plenty of antennas to choose from, but it will come down to how much property you have to work with, your budget, what your spouse will agree to, and whether or not you live in an HOA. If you do live in an HOA, check out the HOA Ham YouTube channel for ideas on what may work in your situation or contact the experienced hams at DX Engineering to discuss your options. If you live in a house, depending on how much space you have, you may have a number of choices such as a vertical, an end fed, or a dipole. Or you can go all in and put up a tower and a Yagi. As the saying goes, bigger is better. In the world of antennas, higher is often better as well.

If you live in an apartment, you will be much more limited in what you can do. If you have a porch or a balcony, you may be able to put up something temporary like a portable vertical or a small portable loop.

Find an Elmer—Ham radio is a global community. By joining a local club, you can connect with experienced hams who can give you advice, provide mentorship, and help you choose the best equipment for your station.

Borrow a Radio—You may be lucky enough to have a friend who has an extra radio that they are willing to lend to you or a local club that has a loaner radio. If so, this is a great way to get on the air and see what HF is all about. Borrowing a rig can help you learn more about how HF rigs work as well as what bands are open and when.

Remember, you are not just buying a radio—you are building a system. From the radio to the power supply to the coax and the antenna, all these things work together to transmit your signal across the country and the world.

If you still are not sure what you want, consider purchasing an inexpensive transceiver. Once you spend some time on the air, you will have a better idea if the rig you purchased is the right rig for you or if an upgrade is in your future. This is what you worked so hard for when you were studying for your license. As you make contacts with other hams, you will begin to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Over time you will be able to learn what changes you may want to make to improve your station. Now get on the air and have fun!

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