HF The Easy Way

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Getting on the air as a new amateur can often be as difficult as learning enough about radio theory to pass the exam. For a great number of new hams (as well as for a lot of us old farts) cost is a major consideration. That snappy new TS590SG looks great and with all the bells and whistles would be a world of fun, but the thought of laying down over a thousand hard earned dollars for it may be another matter. How do you know what you'll need to get started and, moreover, what you'll want after you do?

This section is intended to help you answer those questions about what it will take to get on the air and begin enjoying the privileges you've worked so hard to obtain - without robbing you of your life's savings.

As you are already discovering, amateur radio has more facets than the Hope Diamond, and HF operation is but one. What you think you'll need or will enjoy today will change over time. Accordingly, a solid, basic HF transceiver is perhaps the best investment you'll make. Of the equipment available on the pre owned market today, the best buy for those new to HF lies in the early Kenwood and Yaesu (hybrid)transceivers manufactured between 1976 and 1988.

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Among them are the TS820s, TS830s, and Yaesu hybrid line of transceivers. What makes these transceivers particularly well suited for those new to HF are the following:

  • Solid state receivers - no tubes to change value with age that cause noise, drift and other problems
  • Receiver front ends with sensitivity and signal to noise ratios that match most new rigs on the market
  • Well built, solid state VFOs that won't drift during a long transmission.
  • Speech processing in Kenwoods and most Yaseus - when run with a matching mic provide excellent audio
  • Finals and drive circuitry not only designed around tubes built for continuous RF service, but that provide the flexibility of a pi output network capable of forgiving operator error and inadvertent mismatch.
  • No external power supply required.
  • Exceptional dollar for equipment value, with TS820 and TS830 available for well under $500.00

Another alternative for those on an even tighter budget might be the venerable TS520, however care must be taken to ensure that the radio is sound and fully functional. When purchased in operable condition from a reputable ham, a TS 520 in good to very good condition may be had for right around $200.00. Aside from the lack of a digital readout, the TS520 shares all the features listed above.

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The Yaesu FT101E, which was manufactured at about the same time as the 520 offers many of the same features, however, most that remain have been heavily modified for use on citizens band frequencies and should be avoided. While the TS520 could be modified, they were more difficult and consequently rarely used for that purpose.

Alternatives

If budget is not a major consideration, the field is of course open. This Yaesu FT-DX5000MP, is a good example of what's available for around $3500.00

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Whether a transceiver of that caliber will actually match your level of interest and match your needs, to say nothing of your budget, may be another matter. For that reason, here are a few important points worth considering.

First, do your research - particularly as a new ham, features that may seem attractive in the large picture may actually be of little use. Consequently, spending time with on-line forums and visiting with other hams active on HF will prove invaluable.

Second, and related to the first, get as many operational features as you can for your money; this is not a contradiction, but rather an effort to use the research you've done to acquire as many of the best operational features in the unit you acquire as money will permit.

Finally, buy it right; many of the fully featured rigs are tremendously expensive when purchased new. However, with an aging population of experienced hams, some of the finest equipment can be found at bargain prices from estate sales and individuals that for whatever reason have lost interest. Be aware, however, of anything offered on EBay or other auction sites by non-hams. It is particularly important that you have the opportunity to visit with the ham or his/her immediate family when purchasing more expensive used equipment.

A good example of these factors can be seen in the TS940SAT. When new, this radio equipped with auto tuner sold for right around $2300.00.

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While you have to shop this radio as thoroughly as any other pre owned radio. Due to the age and complexity, actually seeing the unit in operation, acquiring the history and getting some form of solid assurance will be critical. With that, however, the 940 is one of the best buys on the market today at between $500.00 and $900.00 for a solid, cosmetically clean, completely operational unit, capable of producing close to 200 watts PEP. I actually purchased one very recently from a local ham's estate for $350.00

To be sure there are many other good radios to choose from. Those we have reviewed were selected on the basis of their low cost, relative performance, simple power requirements (no power supply required) and capability of operating into less than ideal antenna loads.

Vintage Equipment

Vintage equipment for many hams is both awe inspiring and historically significant. By vintage equipment, we mean generally anything built prior to 1970, that makes little or any use of solid state devices (with the exception of diodes).

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Prime examples of equipment that falls into this class include Collins A and S lines, Hammerlund, Halicrafters, National, Johnson Viking line, as well as others. For the new or returning older ham, the idea of assembling a vintage station often has a romantic attraction. However, the reality involved in acquiring and rebuilding equipment for the purpose of assembling a functional primary station may be a bit daunting, however the rewards of practical knowledge and pride can make the endeavor wholly worthwhile.

Why Use Tubes On The Backend (RF OUT)?

The Kenwood models made from the mid to late 1970s to the early 1980s and designated TS-520, TS-530, TS-820, and TS-830 were known as Hybrids because they were a combination of semiconductors and tubes. Hybrids were mostly semiconductor with only the driver and final unit using tubes. All used the same basic tube lineup - a 12BY7 driver and two 6146s finals. Output of these radios was about 100 watts. And, the 6146 remains today plentiful and cheap.

Like driving a stick shift car, Hybrids having tube finals requires tune-up before you transmit. Tune-up requires adjusting inductance and capacitance to resonate the plate circuit to match the antenna and feed line impedance. The tubes are only used to develop the final output on transmit and are not required to receive. Kenwood, for example, gives you the option of not running the tube filaments even if the radio is powered up.

In short, Hybrids are simple, direct, to the point, and not pretentious in any way. There are no menus, no memories, no CPUs, no DSPs, and there is nothing the radio does, that you need in the course of operating, that you can't control from the front panel. All dials and knobs on the Kenwood Hybrids have one function, clearly labeled, and at your fingertips. It's not that push-button radios are not fine pieces of ham radio gear - it's just that sometimes simpler is better, less is more, and you just need to take a rest and enjoy the technology. This is why we firmly recommend a Hybrid for any new ham on HF.