Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best Starter Ham Shack for <$1000?

In my research I've stumbled on a question that elicits a lot of opinions. What's a good starter ham radio rig to buy? There are a lot of answers, and working through the answers requires a more specific question is what I've learned so far. So here goes. Short form first, more background below.

I'm looking for:

  • A fixed base rig to operate off wall power.

  • 80m to 10m, 160m is greatly desired, 6m would be a nice frill.

  • Rig price on the order of $500 or so, depending on extras:

  • With all the bits--filters, power supply, feedline, key and/or keyer, mike, antenna tuner, etc. I'd like to bring the bundle cost in at about $800, up to as much as $1000 once the last insulator, connector, and screw is in place.

  • Furniture and basic facilities like light, heat, and air isn't included in the cost,

  • but a lot of little things like the antenna feedthrough, cable, switches, and connectors are, which is why I'd like the big pieces to come in around $800.

  • I'd be willing to go higher if I felt really secure that I'm investing in something I'm likely to get much more or better use out of, but I'd still be capped about about $1200-1400 for now, anything more would have to wait.

My present home location appears to be best for HF work, so that's where I'm going to concentrate for now. I expect to pick up a good enough 2m rig to be able to hit the local repeaters for the sake of keeping in touch with the local hams, but VHF isn't where I'm looking to do my regular operating. This rig will be for a fixed station operated when the power is on, so portability and power conserving reception is not a factor, especially when weighed against receiver sensitivity and other such factors.

I have plenty of space for an antenna, but I'm not expecting to start with anything sophisticated in the way of masts--trees will probably be my initial supports, or a small mast off the top of my garage. I have no fixed idea as to whether to build or buy my first HF antenna. I'd like it to be multiband. I'll look at ideas from stringing up a center-fed 12ga wire dipole to a quad band yagi with a rotator.

For the initial antenna set-up, I'm willing to compromise with the expectation of getting more or better later. But I want to start with something good enough that I'm not cut off at the knees while I'm still getting a feel for what I'm up to. It's worth noting that I have an MFJ-259B antenna analyzer on hand.

I don't know what my primary mode is going to be yet. I want to work CW and SSB. I'd like a rig that'll let me dabble a bit, so I'd prefer it to not have any major weaknesses even if it's, say, the greatest CW rig ever built. I'd like to try some digital modes, some SSTV, and some ATV.

The extra equipment for these other modes isn't included in the cost, I just want to be clear that I'd like a rig that can do it at least well enough to get started and figure out if I want to put more money into it later. So a rig that can handle the duty cycle these modes impose is probably going to be necessary.

QRP isn't where I'm looking to start here. I've already got my site working against me, and I really don't know what it's going to take in the way of power to work from here. So the rig should probably be about 100W or more until I know--unless you can tell me better.

I'm expecting to build my own QRP equipment later. The rig I'm looking at getting should be a solid workaday affair, I'll have fun building watch battery wonders later. ;)

So, fellow hams, where does that put me? An old FT-450 or TS-480? Or one of the new "shack in a box" rigs with some extras? Would I be better off springing for a good beam and rotator now, or will a wire dipole hung from some spruce trees get me enough QSOs to keep me going until the money reserves and operating experience build up?

Your opinions are welcome. I know that you can't tell me exactly what I should get. I'm just looking for opinions more seasoned than my own wild guesses. I just want to get an idea to start out reasonably effectively, while keeping the spending down enough that it won't ruin the hobby even if nothing I do works out as planned. ;)


  1. Hi, Mark - I'd call MFJ, AEA and HRO and ask them to mail you their catalogs. It's much easier to dig through paper, filling it with stickys and cryptic notes. I also always have a text file full of stuff I've cut-n-paste from the 'net, or overheard from some genial but unreliable source.

    I favor Yaesu newer equipment. My HF rig is a Icom IC-730 I bought from the club. The club also has a newer rig - it might be an IC-765, we can find out. Seems like it is worth something above $500, but check with KI6CM. We make a good deal to club members because the rigs the club gets are donated.

    For that matter, I'd let my '730 go for about $250. I had Dave at Radio Supply go through it and align it, so it's good to go. I'd like to get a new rig.

    I don't think you will find a new rig with HF in your price range. Talk to W6PD, KI6CM and the guys about older rigs. Some folks - e.g., Burl K4VYL have been fleeced using eBay, so have some other preferred on-line auction sites.

    A decent new rig, with "stuff" is probably going to cost you $2k or more. The $1500 rigs are fine, and then you "need" coax, antenna, lightening arrestor, coax switch, balun, and possibly a power supply, tuner, computer interface, 24-hour clock. You see why I put need in quotes.

    ALWAYS USE GOOD COAX and CONNECTORS, not the cheapest crap. And use good sealant or you will be out of luck some rainy day, maybe a month or maybe five years from now.

    Antenna -

    Cheapest: Consider a dipole cut for some band you really want to use.

    A good bit more: A buckmaster like we have at the club. Still easy to put up and not expensive. G5RVs are cheap (and most are cheaply built). That's why the Buckmaster is so dear. You could build your own, of course.

    In the middle - a used 40M-10M vertical, but you want to get it up in the air a bit.

    Beam and rotor - new really expensive, used fairly inexpensive, but might need some TLC.

    A tower - plan on lots of cement! And a big hole. You can usually find somebody wanting to get rid of a good tower several times a year - free to a good home or not much $$. There are ham swap shops on the air.

    Nice blog, and congrats on the new ticket!

    I'd like to see your CNC sometime.

    Charlie K0TAN

  2. Charlie, thanks a lot for your comments!

    I'd about come to the conclusion that I'd have to wait for more paychecks to come in to do what I want. What you says reassures me that that's the best course of action.

    Meanwhile, I'm going to keep trying to get a signal past the trees with 2m using what I've got.