A ham new or old has many choices for radios and radio gear available. We don’t want to tell radio amateurs what to buy or not to buy but will give some guidance here.
The modern natural progression is to start with a handheld VHF /UHF transceiver, then a mobile VHF /UHF unit, then a base HF rig. These have different characteristics which must be considered so the first question is what type of radio are we buying?
Beyond the basic type there are several factors in selecting a radio brand. It usually comes down to the buyer’s top three or four priorities from this list of characteristics:
- Ease of use/programmability
- Memory capacity
Unless you are looking for a specialty radio (i.e., low-power portable CW operation), size isn’t much of a factor these days as within a general family all radios have similar weights and dimensions.
From this list the top consideration should be functionality (what it does, exactly) as that is most relevant. Say you want a dual-band FM HT to work the local repeaters or for EmComm deployment. You have more than a dozen choices available.
Refining further by features for things like APRS, power levels, battery type, weather resistance, and whatnot will narrow your selection but you still have many to choose from. At this point you’re likely to think about price and here is where things get fuzzy. You could choose the nice name brand $350 radio but there’s one that does mostly the same thing for $50.
Sounds like a slam dunk decision to go with the cheaper one, but you should carefully consider this. Beyond functionality and features, important characteristics suffer. With that low price you get questionable performance, low quality, poor reliability, and lack of durability, not to mention fewer features. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
Now that doesn’t mean you should never buy a cheap radio, but you should really think about doing so. Some HTs are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable. If you lose or break one, you’re out only $30-50. This may be a good candidate for backup or one you might take boating or on a camping trip or loan to a prospective ham to listen on. You can find favorable reviews on some of these cheap radios (mainly HTs and mobile rigs). But you will also find many negative reviews on the same radios, mainly for reliability and durability. Some of the cheap Chinese radios also have poor RF characteristics, lack FCC certification, and are not strictly legal for use in the USA. So it’s a crap shoot if you do want to buy a cheap radio.
There are three well-known name brands that have reputations for high quality and reliability: Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu for hand-held, mobile and base station radio equipment. These will cost more but will give many years of service and are worth repairing should one fail or be broken. All originate in Japan but have strong presence in the USA and other countries. American companies Elecraft and FlexRadio make awesome premium HF rigs but they are not competing for hand-helds or mobile units.
Alinco was another Japanese manufacturer with a good reputation, arguably up there with the Big 3 but is now developed and built in China.
Pre-owned equipment will be less expensive than new, of course, but the price between used reputable brands vs unreputable will be proportional. With used radios you also can find older HF brands with excellent reputations.
The author’s own sad experience with an off-brand mobile radio has led him to this topic and a determination to never again buy a cheap non-disposable radio. He purchased a Tytera cross-band mobile rig that worked for several months. Suddenly people could not hear him when he was talking into the mic. Watt meter said full 50W output and the repeater was keying reliably. Supposing it to be a microphone failure, he replaced the mic but the problem persisted. Evidently something failed in the modulation circuitry so that it barely deviates (how FM works); if he screams into the mic a little sound comes through the radio. The factory in China would repair it but they require a very specific shipping method that costs almost what the radio is worth. No repair facilities for this brand outside of China and no schematics available for troubleshooting; it’s now a paperweight.
Our recommendation is to buy one of the Big 3, or thoroughly check reviews before buying low-cost radios. If you go off-brand, make sure that domestic repair is available.
Do your own research on radio brands. Here is an interesting forum on the Big 3 where other brands are discussed: QRZ poll