Ham radio has remained relatively popular amongst hobbyists since its initial increase in accessibility to the general public. The modern era of radio science and mass production has only served to make these devices more and more accessible to the layman.
However, there’s a huge variety of possible options out there, and it can be difficult to sift through them all.
It might be tempting at first to sink your money into the most expensive, fancy radio kit you can find. Whilst this certainly leaves you some “room to grow” in terms of what you can accomplish with your radio, the learning curve is often so difficult for the more advanced pieces of machinery that it can be incredibly discouraging.
This guide will run you through some of the best possible entry level radios to use for the budding HAM radio enthusiast.
But first, let’s cover some basic questions you may or may not have:
What does the HAM stand for in HAM Radio?
There is actually a wealth of common misconceptions surrounding how the term “HAM” radio came to be coined. Many of them are fairly exciting too.
One theory poses that the term “HAM” comes from the last initials of the original pioneers of radio “Hertz-Armstrong-Marconi”. This is easily disproved by the fact that Armstrong was not a public figure when the term was coined.
Another theory poses that the term comes from a popular magazine known as “Home Amateur Mechanic” magazine – interestingly though, absolutely zero evidence exists to prove the existence of this magazine.
The truth is unfortunately not as exciting: the term HAM radio simply came about due to the fact that the word ‘HAM’ naturally became synonymous with ‘amateur’. This is due to the existence of the phrase “ham-fisted” which is often used in the context of describing someone’s incompetence at a particular task or skill.
Whilst this phrase had negative connotations at first, many amateur hobbyists adopted the phrase, turning it from a negative word into a positive.
Do I Need A License To Operate HAM Radio Equipment?
You do not need a license to purchase HAM radio equipment or use the equipment to monitor various frequencies. However, If you intend to broadcast with your radio equipment in the United States, you will require an FCC license. Laws surrounding amateur radio use outwidth the United States may vary from fairly relaxed to completely illegal.
How Wide Can I Transmit?
The laws surrounding HAM radio transmissions are a lot more relaxed than those governing CB radio. HAM Radio operators have authorisation to transmit on a staggering 28 frequency bands (1.8 to 250K Mhz!) and can use up to 1000 watts of power to transmit! You can also transmit more than just voice: morse code, television & even digital data is allowed.
Can I Use Vox?
If you’re not a fan of the old-fashioned ‘push a button to talk’ approach, you can even opt for VOX integration – if you’re unfamiliar with VOX, it’s simply a voice activated microphone system. It will instantly begin transmitting the second it detects sound above a certain threshold. This is great for seamless conversation and can make your radio experience feel more akin to that of a mobile phone. (For some people this is a positive, for many enthusiasts this can be a negative too – it’s up to personal preference)
Buyer’s Guide To HAM Radio’s – What To Look For:
There are a handful of critical things to look out for when on the search for a reliable ham radio. We’ve cherry picked a few of our favourites below but if you’re looking to know what to look out for when browsing around – then don’t skip this part of the article.
If you’re operating a HAM radio, you’re likely operating on Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF). HAM radios utilise dual-band technology, broadcasting on both the 144-148 MHz range & the 420-450 MHz.
Where your HAM radio resides will also dictate what kind of RF frequencies you should be concerned with monitoring – a 1.2GHz band is the standard for those of you who live in densely populated areas such as cities.
Emergency broadcast signals are commonly in the range of 50 MHz and 222 MHz, so if you’re interested in monitoring them then you should factor that into your purchasing decision-making.
The amount of channels you can store in your devices memory will greatly increase its ease of use. It’s always good to buy a HAM with a significant amount of channel memory so that you don’t need to worry about memory when you save a channel with interesting activity on it.
The software used to program your radio is important. Is it easy to use and easy to learn? What kind of cable do you need to use to connect to your device and begin programming certain frequencies? Is everything pre-programmed for you?
Ask yourself these questions when buying, your level of involvement is critical here and if you want to learn as much as possible, you can always opt for a more advanced device.
What antenna you’ll be using is quite an important question too. Generally, handheld radios and such come with their own smaller antennas pre-attached. These are not always the best antenna for the job – in fact, they’re very frequently the worst. A better/longer antenna will give you a clearer signal and better range.
Good quality batteries are always important in any electronic device. Poor quality batteries range from being absolutely useless to being a constant fire hazard. Opt for a device with a good quality battery that can be easily recharged without much fuss – you’ll save yourself a headache.
Other additional features
There are a width of other features you can look into for your HAM Radio. Things such as smart mics or VOX compatibility are available. VOX compatibility is more common on higher end consumer radios – it’s also really useful, allowing you to start and end transmissions without even hitting a button!
Good quality headsets are also great additionals you can tack on to your purchase. The better quality the headset, the easier you’ll find it adjusting and compensating for any issues you may be encountering a particular signal.
The 5 Best HAM Radios For Beginners
Radio #1 – The ICOM 2300H 05 Amateur Radio
The ICOM 2300H is ideal for beginners. It’s relatively cheap, compact in size and is specifically designed to be easy to use.
The 2300H offers some key features:
- Low weight of around 2.4 lbs
- Multiple Scan Function
- DTMF Auto Dial Features
- Repeater Lockout
- Automatic Power Off
- Weather Alert System
- Solid Audio Quality
- 65 Watt power output for long range transmission/recieving
It offers ‘Distributed Tactical Communications System’ (or DTCS) Encryption. It also offers use of the Continuous Tone Coded Squelch-System (another form of encryption, referred to as CTCSS for short.)
Another key feature is the ability to store up to 207 of your favourite frequencies across alphanumerically categorized memory channels. Whilst it’s great to write down notable frequencies on paper, this can cut down on that need greatly.
Radio #2 – The Yaesu FT-8900R Quad Band Transceiver
The Yaesu comes with 800 memory channels for you to play with. It has Very High Frequency (VHF) / Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Functionality.
It has a sturdy but sleek aesthetic design with a nice orange backlighting that’s easier on the eyes.
It has a remote-head mounting feature which makes mounting the device in virtually any car a walk in the park.
Amazingly, due to the scope and scale of this radio it has worldwide FM capability – this pairs very well with it’s high power output and thermal regulation.
Despite the functionality of this device, it’s still very much an amateur friendly HAM radio – there’s no vast array of complex buttons to get lost in. If you’re looking for something that’s beginner friendly but doesn’t sacrifice functionality, this radio is for you.
Radio #3 – The Kenwood Original V71A Dual Band Mobile Transceiver
Was 800 memory channels not enough? The Kenwood original comes with 1000!
It has dual-frequency capability (VxV and UxU) and a standard 50 Watt power output.
On top of having all of the features of the radios listed above, the backlight colour can be toggled between Amber/Green. It uses a 104 code digital squelch for encryption and the front panel can be inverted also.
This radio is ideal for budding enthusiasts looking to get a considerable amount of mileage out of their radios. If your certain amateur radio is a hobby you’ll stick with, this may be the radio for you.
It can operate as a scanner outside of the traditional HAM radio bands but will NOT transmit. (This is very handy as doing so is actually against the law.)
The microphone plugs into the side of the radio rather than the front, so keep that in mind if you’re working with a compact space.
Radio 4# – President Electronics RONALD HAM Transceiver
If you’re unfamiliar with president electronics, they have a pretty cool naming convention for their radios. Each radio is named after a different historical US President.
Regardless of your feelings on Ronald Reagan, his namesake makes for a great entry level amateur HAM radio for those who are perhaps nervous about sinking too much money into a hobby they’re still new to.
It comes with an easy to read LCD display with a warm amber glow for backlighting, this makes the frequency display much easier to read and is overall easier on the eyes.
It also has an external loudspeaker jack for hooking up to more powerful sound systems.
It’s perfect for entry level enthusiasts who are a little bit anxious to dive headfirst into managing a more complex system. You’re likely to pick the ropes up fairly quickly with this model due to its relative simplicity.
Radio 5# – President Lincoln 2 Plus (V3)
Yet another product from president electronics. It may be named after a much older president, but it’s certainly not outdated in terms of the tech involved in engineering this masterpiece.
The Lincoln 2 comes with multiple programmable emergency channels & an easy to use interface with plenty of control.
Enjoy switching seamlessly between AM, FM and SSB – Just make sure you have a good cable.
The Multi-function LCD display provides a wealth of information without being overburdening, making the initial setup of the device a total breeze.
All of the 12 meter and 10 meter amateur radio bands are covered by this device. You also have the option of RF gain and RF Power.
It’s one of the radios you could fairly accurately brand as a “premium” product which still has a reasonable level of accessibility to beginners.
Other HAM Radio Questions:
Can I Use A HAM Radio As A CB?
You can, you must still adhere to the same laws as CB radio operators though and as such are restricted to using the FCC approved CB channels 1-40.
Is UHF Or VHF Better?
In terms of both the distance transmissions can make it over & the ability to get a signal in thick foliage/more obstructed environments – VHF is more reliable. UHF has other uses but practically speaking many people would lean more towards VHF for transmission purposes.
How Much Does A Ham Radio License Cost?
Normally around $15. You are effectively paying for the privilege of taking the exam that grants you the license – rather than paying for the license itself. The only reason there’s a charge is effectively to cover the cost of materials for the exam and the time of volunteers who choose to monitor the exams.