The Top 10 Best Ham Radios on the Market
The Internet may be the mainstay of long-distance communication these days, but that old standby of radio still has its uses. With a thriving community especially in the US, there’s much to draw the prospective user to the amateur, or “ham” as it’s colloquially known, radio scene.There are a dozen reasons to get your ham license, all of them equally valid. It could be simply social; hams tend to congregate in clubs, after all, or you could enjoy “ragchewing,” or the radio equivalent of chatting. Or you might like the technical challenges, learning about how the radio spectrum works.Perhaps you’re a public-spirited volunteer; the Amateur Radio Emergency Service steps in when disaster strikes and cell towers are down. Of course, none of this is worth anything when you don’t have the very foundation of what you need: that is, a radio unit. And while RadioShack may be dying, other places have picked up the slack – most prominently, that titan of titans, our old online friend Amazon. Just leave it to Talkiespy to bring you the latest in Ham Radios.
Before we go into the radios, though, we have to ask: What should I get?
Choosing A Radio
When it comes to the choice of what to get, the question here is, what do you want to do with it? A radio’s ability is largely shaped by power and transmission capability, which require some size to support the first two. There are other considerations, and we’ll think about that in this section.
Types of Radio Sets
You can generally divide radio sets into three distinct types: handheld radios, mobile units, and base stations.Dinky handhelds are of course the easiest to carry around. Most manufacturers will generally ship them with a belt clip or something to keep them on your person. However, they also give up power and transmission capability; the best you can hope out of a handheld is 5 watts of power, maybe 8 watts for some models. You’re restricted to local use, and if you want some distance, you’ll have to rely on repeaters.Mobile units are for when you need a bit more range. Transmission capability is comparable to handhelds; they still work on VHF and UHF, though some models can access more than one band. What they have over handheld radios is power; where high power for a handheld tops out at 8 watts, a mobile will be capable of going up to 25 or 50 watts. With power comes range; connect a good mobile unit to a decent antenna, and you can achieve about 50km of range (conditions permitting, of course).
If you want to explore long-distance communication, then you need access to the high-frequency bands, and for that, you need a base station. Now, these aren’t actually all that large; they’re larger than mobile units, but you can still carry them around as long as you can supply power and an antenna. The real barrier to entry is cost; a new one will cost you somewhere above $650 if you’re lucky. Most generally cost more than that.But oh, what that cost buys. For the investment you put into your equipment, you can work high frequency, instead of being limited to VHF and UHF the way you are with smaller radios. The downside of VHF and UHF is that they’re limited by range. HF, on the other hand, can reach much further; conditions permitting, it’s eminently possible to be on the West Coast and talk to someone on the far side of the country. Or even in another country entirely.
Ask Yourself, What Do You Want To Do With This Radio?
The answer to this question basically determines what you should get. Of course, you’ll need your license to operate; we assume for purposes of this article that you already have it or you’re planning to get it soon.If you’re just curious and looking to dip your toes into the water (which is a perfectly valid motivation), then the gateway drug for you is something cheap. We’ve listed two Chinese handheld radios below that won’t break your budget but will let you on the airwaves. If you’d like a bit more power, there’s even a BaoFeng mobile unit for just around $130.If you’re into the technical side of things and looking to improve, the right answer is ‘what works for you’. Exploring the mysteries of VHF and UHF is already a challenge in itself, and there are also new digital protocols to consider. HF’s long-distance capability is worth its own exploration.If you’re looking to DX, that is, making contact with distant stations to see how far you can get, the most important consideration is range. You can DX on any frequency you like, but DXing on VHF and UHF is going to be shorter-ranged than on HF. So it depends on how far you’re willing to go; if you really want to call Hanoi from San Diego, best save up for a base station.If you’re looking to assist in disaster response, range and power become most important, to make sure you can be heard and that you can hear people. Features to improve reception and clarity, like digital signal processing, also become nice to have.Overall, the answer will eventually depend on you. Ham radio is what you make of it, and there is no ‘right’ way to do it. You can see for yourself what radio below works for you.
BaoFeng BF-F8HP 8-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio
This Chinese production is first on our list of portable units, as it’s specifically designed for the beginner, from the manual all the way up to the customer service and warranty. Those familiar with BaoFeng’s offerings will remember the old UV-5R; this BF-F8HP is a much better product with more output and battery life. If you want to upgrade from the old model, rest easy: It’s backwards compatible with all the accessories for the older model.If you’re looking to get started, then this is the model for you. You can find your feet on something inexpensive like this, then move on to other models once you’ve got more radio time under your belt.
- Pros: 20 hours of battery life on max output, assuming average use. It can receive commercial FM radio at 65-108 MHz. A flashlight comes included. And it’s geared for beginners.
- Cons: Build quality is hit-or-miss; some units may have a defective charging cable or power supply.
Wouxun KG-UV9D Plus Multi-Band Multi-functional DTMF Two-way Radio 7 Bands Included Air Band
China has been breaking in on the handheld-and-cheap scene, and that’s a good thing because more affordable beginner sets mean more people can get into ham radio. Besides, just because it’s from China doesn’t automatically make it bad.
Particularly notable about the Wouxun KG-UV9D is that its UHF capability is reprogrammable. Using the software, you can set it to receive and transmit on either 220 MHz or 440 MHz, depending on which one you’d prefer.
A change of antenna may be needed to properly transmit, though. It also includes a comprehensive array of voice announcements for just about anything happening on the radio, which helps visually-impaired users.
- Pros: Voice announcements. UHF transmission capability can be reprogrammed for either 220 MHz or 440 MHz. Integrated flashlight, cheap accessories.
- Cons: Battery and signal strength indicators are pretty much ‘yes/no’ indicators as to their respective element. Manual is poorly translated
Kenwood Original TH-D74A Triband Handheld Transceiver
The previous two Chinese models are cheap, and that’s their value: they’re a gateway drug. They give you enough capability at a low price that you can explore. When you want to take your handheld game to the next level, that’s what this Kenwood model is for.
The price tag is pretty heavy, but it buys IF DSP for reception and clarity, compatibility with D-STAR and APRS digital protocols, plus Bluetooth capability, a micro-SD card slot, and a micro-USB port for interfacing with your computer. Overall, this is for when you’re serious about your handheld capability.
- Pros: Three bands to work with. Excellent reception and audio quality with the included features, plus easily programmable and connectible to your computer. Specifically designed for digital protocols.
- Cons: More expensive than most handhelds. Running on high power with GPS and APRS will drain the battery quickly; best to grab a few extra batteries to switch out. Extra features need some time to get used to.
Icom 2300H 05 144MHz Amateur Radio
Most radios will have transmission capability for multiple bands, to make sure you have options; if one band doesn’t work, you can always try again on another. This offering from Icom goes the other way: it gives up flexibility to instead specialize. It does only VHF and does it very well.
It offers other virtues to make up for being VHF-only. Firstly, it’s built to comply with MIL-STD-810G specifications; that is, excellent toughness. It’s also very easy to program; at least one user has stated he’s made contact five minutes after unboxing. If you don’t mind being restricted to VHF, the 2300H will serve you well.
- Pros: Built to mil spec toughness, can survive most forms of casual abuse. Very easy to program and use.
- Cons: Restricted to one band only. Included microphone tends to be clumsy to handle and tinny in sound; may be better to put in a different mic you like more.
TYT TH-7800 50W Dual Band Radio
What’s better than one radio? Sticking two radios together in one package. This offering from TYT is true dual VFO, which lets you monitor two frequencies at once. Each VFO has separate knobs for channel, volume, and squelch, allowing you to listen on one side, speak on the other, and adjust as needed. It can also act as a cross-band repeater, should you need to provide assistance to your handheld-bearing.
A notable feature is the six ‘Hyper Memory’ keys on the front, labeled A-F. These let you save the present configuration on both sides of your radio, so you can return to that exact setting later on with a button press. These can come in handy if you’d rather not play around with knobs.
- Pros: Dual VFO. Can act as a cross-band repeater. Programmable ‘Hyper Memory’ keys in front let you save a radio configuration and later return with one press.
- Cons: Clunky programming software. If you’re scanning on one side, then call on the other, the scan stops, and you have to manually key for scan again.
BTECH Mini UV-25X4 25 Watt Tri-Band Mobile Radio
In full, that BTECH reads as “BaoFengTech.” As you can see from this list, China has been largely breaking into the mobile and handheld markets. All the better for the consumer, as competition makes sure you get the best products. The UV-25X4 is rather dinky for a mobile unit, but it has its charms.
The third band there is the 1.25m band, which is open for amateur use in the Americas. Technically, the UV-25X4 can transmit on a fourth band: 350-390 MHz. However, this is not an amateur band in Europe, Africa, or the Americas. It’s available for amateur use in some parts of Asia, but unless you’re there, stay off it.
That wrinkle aside the UV-25X4 takes ‘dinky’ to the mobile scene while chugging along quite cheerfully. If you’d rather not be hassled by a large bulky radio going anywhere, it’s the one for you.
- Pros: Very cheap mobile unit, and thus a good entry into higher-power VHF and UHF. Very small size, easy to carry around.
- Cons: Potential legal pitfall in the 350-390 MHz access, use with care. External speakers require a 3.5 TRRS jack to function properly. There’s a bandpass filter for 220 MHz that switches on and off when switching to and from that band, which produces a relay click sound that may be annoying. Underpowered compared to other mobile radios.
Radioddity x TYT MD-9600 Dual Band DMR Mobile Car Truck Transceiver
Reheating leftovers is always chancy; at worst they’re inedible, at best you remember they’re not really all that fresh..
The good news is that the Radioddity x TYT MD-9600 does everything that the FT-8900 does, and improves on it while being a good deal cheaper. Like its labelmate the TYT MD-9600 above, it’s also pretty much two radios stuck together, being true double VFO. Notably, it can also transmit on the 10m band, thus giving a user some HF capability at a reasonable price.
In all, the 9600 provides unremarkable but reliable service. And what more does anyone need?
- Pros: It’s a knockoff that’s better than the original. Can transmit on the 10m band. Dual VFO.
- Cons: Earlier models come with a Busy Lock that has to be disabled via programming. The right side of the radio is only capable of 2m and 70cm transmission.
Icom IC-718 HF All Band Amateur Base Transceiver
Base stations are where a lot of ham takes place. VHF and UHF are perfectly functional and will serve, but HF offers opportunities that they don’t. The problem is that the equipment needed to access HF gets to be pretty expensive. This offering from Icom is already on the cheap side, and it’s $680.
The IC-718 can be thought of as a beginner’s model. Its low cost lets a ham break into HF without too much pain, and while it does have some features to play with, there aren’t so many of them that they’d overwhelm a new user. They’re also immensely reliable; some users have been sticking with their IC-718s for years without ever taking them back to the shop.
Here’s the best testimony for the IC-718, though: Despite it being marketed as a beginner’s model, there are a lot of ham operators who, after using this as their first rig, haven’t changed to another model, even after having seen how other radios perform. When you’ve got something as good as this for below a thousand dollars, who needs anything more?
- Pros: A cheap but excellent base unit. Easy to learn and understand.
- Cons: Noisy without DSP. Relatively few features; experienced hams may want more things to play with. The front speaker may be tinny; getting an external speaker is advisable.
Yaesu Original FT-450D HF/50 MHz Compact Amateur Base Transceiver
The downside of getting into high-frequency is the cost of most base stations. If you’re buying new, most HF-capable transceivers go for north of $1000. This offering from Yaesu, however, offers magnificent capability for lower than the thousand-dollar mark.
It’s quite surprising how much it incorporates for the price. The various features of its IF DSP let the Yaesu FT-450D isolate signals and improve clarity, and slice out interference. The manual is excellent and comprehensive, which is a great help, as the menu system is a particular weakness. If you have to get exactly one radio, then the FT-450D won’t let you down.
- Pros: DSP features ensure excellent signal capture and reception. Reasonable price for a base station.
- Cons: Only goes up to 25 watts on AM. Menu system needs some learning time.
Kenwood TS-480HX HF/50 MHz Amateur Base Transceiver
Have you ever wanted to reach out and touch someone via radio? This rig from Kenwood is exactly what you need for that. Most base stations transmit at 100W; the TS-480HX considers this to be underachieving and prefers to send at 200W. Couple that with the AF DSP, and you can be dead sure that people will hear you.
It is a bit expensive, but frankly, for most hams working HF, it reigns supreme. With 130 reviews on eham.net dating from 2004, the majority of them 5/5, it won’t let you down if you go for it.
- Pros: 200 watts of transmission power! Two fans to keep the unit cool, plus AF digital signal processing.
- Cons: Serious power hog, needs two standard or one large power supply to feed the beast. Can only install two filters at a time. The price tag is heavy, and the whole thing may well be overkill for the average user.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where should I start?
There’s no need to go big the first time. It can be daunting to look at the entire spectrum of HF and what you need to work high-frequency, but this is amateur radio. Your reasons are entirely your own, and whatever you use to make the contact is what works for you. The radio that you can buy outweighs the radio that you can’t.
You can already do a fair bit on VHF; just puttering about on 2m and chatting to other people in the same city via a repeater on your handheld is perfectly fine. You can put off getting the big stuff after you’ve earned your General license and have a bit of cash stored away.
Do I need a car for a mobile unit? Can I put a base station in my car?
No, and yes. The names are just there for convenience, but you can easily set up a mobile unit as your home station or drive around with a base, as long as you can keep it powered and bring an antenna with you. There are some hams who wander around looking for good spots to make contact from.
How much range can I expect?
Earlier it was all about range, but honestly, there’s no easy way to estimate how far you can contact someone, as a lot of factors are in play. Sure, UHF has a shorter range than VHF, which has a shorter range than HF, but you also have to consider transmission power, the weather, how high your antenna is, whether it’s nighttime or daytime, what kind of obstructions are present – there’s no real way to make a solid statement. The ranges given back in the “Choosing A Radio” section are ballpark figures.
Under the right conditions, you can be in Colorado and make contact with an operator in Japan, while also completely incapable of reaching your usual ragchew partner the next county over. Repeaters can extend a VHF signal a fair way. Better to test your signal in the field, really.
Do I still need to learn Morse Code to get my license?
In the past, this was a requirement, but the FCC has discontinued requiring Morse proficiency tests to earn your license since February of 2007. You can still learn Morse (or Continuous Wave, CW, as the ham community calls it) if you like, as it has charms of its own, but you can go mucking around on the airwaves without needing to figure out dots and dashes.
What else will I need?
Handhelds incorporate all they need in the package. For mobile units and base stations, you’ll also want an antenna to connect them to. You can buy some off the shelf, or if you’re confident in your electric skills, DIY some. Making your own antennas is also another part of amateur radio if you’re into that kind of thing. You’ll also need a power supply if you decide to get a base station; 100W of transmission power doesn’t come easy.
Everything else beyond that is improvements to your quality of life, not outright necessities. Microphones and external speakers, for instance, though they may be a greater need if your existing unit has poor qualities in those areas.
Ham Radios: Concluding thoughts
Whether it’s handheld or mobile or base, there’s a lot of ways to enter the ham radio scene. Depending on need and price point, you can find something to fit you, and with it, make your way into the world of amateur radio.
New to the scene and unsure where to start? The BaoFeng BF-F8HP will serve you well. Need a tough cookie for the road? Grab the Icom 2300H. Got money burning in your pocket and a yen to chat with your old friend in Denmark while you’re in New Jersey? Shell out for the Kenwood TS-480HX.
Whatever you need, there’s a radio to fit you.
Related: Best Long Range Walkie Talkies