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Published Sep 28, 2022 3:11 PM

What are ham radios? In short, ham radio operators are amateur radio enthusiasts who communicate with one another via radio frequencies assigned specifically to this community by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the International Telecommunications Union. Ham radio operators are required to be licensed by the FCC, a process that involves testing, knowledge, and demonstration of abilities pertaining to such radio communications and the use of the corresponding equipment. Upon completion, operators are assigned a call sign—e.g. AB1PAL—unique to them. 

Today, there are some three million licensed ham radio operators worldwide, with about 700,000 here in the United States. Ham radios can be large or small, portable or stationary, mobile, handheld, or any of several configurations. Some can transmit but a short distance, while others are capable of bouncing a signal off the moon and sending it halfway around the planet! Below are some of the best ham radios on the market, with an emphasis on units for the beginner ‘ham.’ 

Author’s Note – Traditionally, I’ve handled the information for reviews myself. However, when it comes to ham radios, I’m just a bit out of my wheelhouse in terms of experience. So I found someone who truly knows their way around the airwaves: Justin Roberts. An EMT and volunteer firefighter with Wahkiakum County in Washington and Wahkiakum Fire District 4, Roberts has held his Technician’s Level FCC License for 12 years, served as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, and sits on the county’s emergency radio board. He operates daily on the 2M/440 frequency, and he knows his stuff.

Best Overall: Kenwood TH-D74A

Best Overall

Why It Made the Cut: This tri-band radio (2M, 220, and 440) has a wealth of functionality and an almost endless list of features. 

Key Features

  • Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) compatible
  • GPS and Bluetooth
  • Visibility display 
  • Voice recording mode along with messaging functionality
  • Weather station information
  • Micro USB

Pros

  • Voice recording ability allows for replaying instructional information
  • Dual frequency mode
  • Good sound quality
  • AAA battery operation
  • Lightweight at 7.13 ounces

Cons

  • Challenging on the UFR (User-Friendliness Rating)
  • Costly for some budgets

Roberts had no hesitation whatsoever in choosing Kenwood’s TH-D74A as the “Best Overall” ham radio; however, there are some caveats. On the plus side, he lists the unit’s APRS capability—which includes GPS coordinates, text messages, weather data, and other high-value and/or emergency related communications—high on his personal scale, along with both the Kenwood’s GPS and Bluetooth functions. “The TH-D74A” does a lot of things,” said Roberts, “but it’s not going to do anything that you, as the holder of a Technician’s Level License, is permitted (by the FCC) to do.”

But all this ability and technology may have a price. “You pull this radio out of the box,” he said, “turn it on, and look at the screen, and you’re going to say ‘WHOA…There’s a lot of numbers and widgets and gidgets here. I don’t know what’s going on.” Roberts suggest having some experience, or the pleasure of working with someone who has ham radio experience, before deciding to plop down $600 for a TH-D74A.

Best Handheld: Yaesu FT-60R

Best Handheld

Why It Made the Cut: The FT-60R has been around forever, which is saying a lot when you consider most technology is outdated within minutes of being introduced.

Key Features

  • 1,000 memory channels and 10 memory banks for dedicated channel allocation
  • High 5-watt power output
  • Big LCD display
  • One-touch NOAA weather access
  • Two front panel programmable (customizable) keys

Pros

  • Excellent price point ($150)
  • Rugged water-resistant housing
  • User-friendly
  • Dual band (2M and 440)

Cons

  • Somewhat limited range of features
  • No digital modes, i.e. APRS

The FT-60R was introduced in 2004 at the Dayton Ham Radio Show (known in The Circle as ‘Hamvention’) and Roberts owns three of them. “Most electronic devices are in production for a couple years, and then the manufacturer moves onto the next model or version,” he explained. “This one’s still in production today because you just turn it on, type in a frequency (or hit a pre-programmed key earmarked with that particular frequency), and you’re off.” The good part about this means that things like batteries, accessories, and, most significantly, service and repairs can still be had almost universally.

The FT-60R also offers wide band reception, which Roberts explains means that the user can listen to radio traffic in the 800 megahertz (MHz) public safety band, as well as the air (civil aviation/aircraft band) band. This allows the FT-60R to operate as a traditional scanner, for those wishing to monitor local emergency broadcasting networks. 

Best Mobile: ICOM ID-5100A

Best Mobile

Why It Made the Cut: Enough features to make it a good choice for the experienced user, but not so complicated so as to take it out of the realm of the up-and-comer. 

Key Features

  • 1,000 regular channels and four call channels
  • 5W, 15W, 50W output power options
  • Touch screen operation
  • Dual watch capable so you can monitor two frequencies simultaneously 
  • Bluetooth available
  • SD card slot for voice/data storage

Pros 

  • Built-in GPS allows for APRS functionality
  • Pre-programmed ‘call out’ channels are convenient
  • Remote head bracket makes for easy mounting in a vehicle

Cons

  • Abundance of features can prove challenging to navigate for new users
  • Price ($400/450) on the higher end for the quality

“It’s not a starter radio,” Roberts said of the ICOM ID-5100A. “I’d put it somewhere in the middle of the User-Friendliness Scale. Roberts went on to compliment the radio’s dual band capability (2M/440), and the unit’s ‘Dual Watch’ feature, permitting users to be on two frequencies at the same time. He said he often monitors a local repeater, as well as the 2M calling frequency, so he can listen and respond to repeated traffic within the immediate area, along with call outs, which is someone reaching out via radio on the 2M frequency.

One thing I—as a novice and frequent long-distance traveler—like about the ID-5100A is the radio’s repeater list function, which searches for and accesses nearby repeater sites (towers), even if you’re in a location for the first time. An abbreviated list of repeaters comes pre-programmed into the unit; however, a more in-depth list can be built by entering GPS coordinate information pertaining to the individual repeaters. 

Best for Beginners: Baofeng UV-5R

Best for Beginners

Why It Made the Cut: “It’s c-c-h-h-e-e-a-a-p-p,” said Roberts of the $30 radio. “And it just works.”

Key Features

  • Dual band (2M and 440) with 128 channels
  • High/low TX (transmit) power selectable
  • Tri-color background light customizable 
  • LED flashlight
  • Emergency alert

Pros

  • Widely used and widely available with a wealth of online tutorials 
  • Extremely user-friendly
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Earpiece, belt clip, and hand strap included
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Limited capabilities and functions…but remember, it’s $30
  • Operates on amateur radio bands only
  • Not waterproof nor incredibly rugged

So you’ve decided to test the waters in terms of ham radios, but in doing a little digging around, you’re seeing prices ranging from $250 to astronomical, along with levels of complexity that would confound an entire Thursday night Mensa meeting. Well, you’re in luck with the Baofeng UV-5R. Perhaps not surprising for $30, this unit is somewhat limited in its features and capabilities. “It’s only 2M and 440,” Roberts explained, “but the UV-5R has the dual watch mode, so you can monitor two frequencies at the same time.” Roberts went on to describe this radio as “clunky” in terms of usability.

Bottom line with the UV-5R? To repeat Roberts, she just—with some limitations—works, and she’s inexpensive to the point you’re not going to shed crocodile tears if she falls off the bumper and you run ‘er over with your truck. “You can afford to break a UV-5R,” he said. “There aren’t many electronics out there you can afford to break.”

Things to Consider When Buying a Ham Radio

Buying a ham radio is no different than buying any other piece of quality outdoor equipment. Sure, you can rush and buy the first unit that catches your eye or the first radio that Mr. Advertising Person tells you is the latest/greatest thing since the Zip-top bag and the safety pin. Or you can do a bit of research prior to the purchase, beginning with criteria such as these.

Price

Quality has a price; so, too, do features, i.e. gingerbread, above and beyond the basic necessities. That said—and as is typical with electronics—you really do get what you pay for in terms of the aforementioned quality and capability. Ham radios come in a wide variety of price points, with some entry-level handhelds costing less than $100, while other more sophisticated and technologically advanced equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. As a side note , study materials for the FCC license will come at a cost, as will the exam in most cases.

Location and Type of Operation

Where you intend to operate from will in part determine the type of radio you buy, which in turn affects price and other variables. The basic forms of operation include based/fixed (permanent); mobile, as in a vehicle; temporary, or place-to-place and portable; or the ultimate in portability, the handheld. Do you want to operate from a tabletop in the comforts of your own home, or would you rather talk on your feet?

Programmable Memory

Most ham radios offer some type of programmable memory function, where you program in a frequently used channel or repeater, and a single touch takes you immediately to that selection. It’s a convenience, really, but a nice feature to have accessible. 

Power Supply

Ham radios get their power from any number of sources, often depending on the style of radio being used. Some draw power from a traditional wall outlet; others, like a mobile, may use 12-volt power pulled from your vehicle’s battery/batteries. Still others operate via AA or AAA rechargeable or non-rechargeable (alkaline) batteries. So, how are you planning to use it? Where? And for what period of time? 

Bands

Technically speaking, ham radio frequency bands are a range of frequencies in a radio frequency (RF) spectrum, which run the gamut from very low (vlf) to extremely high (ehf) frequencies. Most, but not all, ham radios allow operators to work on two commonly used bands—two meter (2M) and 440—out of the box, and it’s often best to purchase a unit capable of transmitting and receiving on both.

User-Friendliness Rating (UFR)

No sense in getting technology capable of landing a man on Mars, if you’re still at the ‘walking before you run’ stage. Here, ask questions or do your homework online. How user-friendly is the radio? Are there 12 elemental buttons (keys) that perform 12 equally elemental functions, or does each key offer an additional 12 options? For the novice, myself very much included, simple is best.

FAQs

Q: Why is it called a ‘ham’ radio?

It’s not so much that the radio itself is called a ‘ham,’ though it is known as a ‘ham radio.’ It’s because the radio operators themselves go by the moniker of radio amateurs or hams. Many stories exist as to how and why the word ham came to be associated with these amateur radio operators.

Q: How far will a ham radio reach?

There are several factors that contribute to the distance that a ham radio will reach, including the frequency band you’re operating on, the output power of your particular unit, and the terrain. Frequencies below 2M are used by folks wishing to speak, say, from North America to Australia or China. An entry-level 5-watt handheld ham radio, however, should be capable of reaching out to an end-user roughly five miles away under optimum line-of-sight conditions.

Q: How do you obtain a ham radio license?

You’re required to pass a test prior to earning and obtaining your ham radio license. For most beginners, a Level 1 or Technician License is where you want to begin, with higher levels including a General License and Amateur Extra, both of which open up greater opportunities to explore the radio world. There’s a fee ($15, plus study materials and FCC license fees) followed by studying and either in-person or online testing. Then you can check the FCC database (wireless2.fcc.gov) for your name to appear.

Q: Do ham radios need electricity to operate?

Ham radios do need some type of power source, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional 110V (household) power/electricity. It could be a battery, energy produced via a solar panel, or an ordinary wall outlet.

Final Thoughts

Like many things in life, ham radio operation can be as elemental or as complex as one wishes it to be. In most cases, the old adage KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is, by far, the best advice. Don’t over-complicate the process, especially if you’re just getting your proverbial feet wet. Often, it’s not about having the fanciest or the most expensive radio on the market. Ham radio, I’ve often heard, is all about learning to operate your unit of choice on your own, and then, once semi-skilled, experimenting. And lest we forget the most important aspect of non-emergency related amateur radio: fun.

Methodology

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a techno-wiz, especially not with what I’d deem highly advanced electronics. I mention this because it’s a major player in how I arrived at the selections I did. First and foremost, I’m looking for something that ranks relatively high on the UFR (User-Friendliness Rating) scale. The unit can be more than simple on/off and volume up/down buttons, but I tried to steer clear of those pieces involving multitudinous microphyte communities and a masters in Astrophysics, neither of which I understand. Here’s what I considered:

  • Is it user-friendly? Do I need a degree in tele-comm to make it work?
  • Can I talk to the people I want to talk to? Is it rangy enough?
  • What does it cost? Should I sell a kidney, or borrow one and sell that?
  • Are the batteries rechargeable? Long-lived? Or does it require plug-in power?
  • Can I upgrade this particular unit, or am I buying a new one?