Recommendation for First Ham Radio Transceiver

If you’ve been around this hobby long, chances are good you’ve been asked to make an equipment recommendation for a newly licensed radio ham. It’s a really tough request. There’s a lot of gear that fits the bill, but any such conversation requires consideration for budget and whether buying new or used makes the most sense.

What you consider ‘affordable’ might be way over the top for someone else. And then what about new versus used? Besides, any hardware recommendation made comes with the risk that it could end up disappointing. It’s indeed a tough question and one I’ve always thought best to evade and avoid.

But when asked again recently, I decided the time had come for me to step up and make the case for what I believe to be the best amateur transceiver for the new radio enthusiast. And that required the aforementioned discussion about the cost of our hobby and the benefits of buying new versus used equipment.

Budget

When I was first licensed, there were still ARRL publications in circulation suggesting that budding radio enthusiasts could assemble a complete HF station from parts salvaged from discarded television sets.

Another publication implied that finding an ARC-5 receiver from any World War II surplus store was a good first step in the hobby. While anything is possible, not everything is practical and frankly, I found these suggestions ridiculous, even in 1976.

I ended up buying an HW-16 transceiver from Heathkit and assembled it. Of course it didn’t work – too many cold solder joints and a few wiring errors. A local ham helped me repair it and get it on the air. Along with the matching HG-10B VFO and a few accessories, I think I had about five-hundred dollars in my Novice station.

I’m aware that a lot of hams got started in the hobby building their own equipment from razor blades and chips of galena. The *maker ethos* runs deep in our fraternity. But I’m also aware that many of those same hams didn’t have indoor plumbing when they built those stations from scavenged parts. Times change.

When it comes to cost, fifteen-hundred dollars seems a reasonable budget for a new operator in this new century. You could spend more. Plenty more. In fact, there’s no limit on how much you could spend, but fifteen hundred bucks will buy all the equipment required for any new enthusiast to be fully baptized in practically everything this hobby has to offer.

New vs. Used

When it comes to used gear, there are plenty of good deals to be had. But I don’t recommend that new radio amateurs buy used equipment. Not everyone who sells used is trustworthy and there’s usually no warranty on used gear — and no returns. If you’re a new ham and have an experienced friend to help guide you thru a used equipment purchase then so much the better — your risk can be mitigated.

But there’s another good reason why your first major amateur radio purchase should be new instead of used. After a few months, you might decide that ham radio isn’t your cup of tea. It happens. In that case, chances are you will be able to sell your almost new gear for a significant percentage of what you paid for it. That way, your cost to take the hobby for a “test drive” is greatly reduced.

Shack in a Box

There are several transceivers that cover HF, VHF and UHF and some of these provide all-mode capability across that spectrum. In earlier days, the inclusion of so much tech in one box required designs that compromised performance.

Most of those shortcomings have since been addressed and this type of equipment provides great value.

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For a lot of very good reasons, I recommend the ICOM IC-7100 as the best “first” transceiver for any new  amateur radio enthusiast.

The head is detached from the main transceiver body making for an incredibly small footprint on the desk. It provides 100 watts output on 160-6 meters and includes VHF and UHF with all modes. That permits access to local repeaters, both FM and D-STAR. All-mode VHF and UHF opens the door to contesting, rover work – or even EME.

On the HF bands and six meters, it’s a rock solid performer. The big touch display makes operation and accessing menu options a snap. I used the 7100 to work dozens of RTTY stations with no other interface. I programmed a couple of memories with my call sign and signal report and copied RTTY right off the main screen — working stations in a contest by pushing just two buttons.

Its USB interface makes pairing it with your computer a single cable detail.

This is a transceiver that can transport the new operator from their first QSO to DXCC and beyond. Long after the neophyte has graduated to seasoned operator, the 7100 will continue to deliver excellent value.

The IC-7100 can be purchased for under $1000 — so why the $1500 budget?

I think anyone buying the 7100 should also purchase the companion AH-4 auto-tuner. It integrates perfectly with the transceiver (one button auto-tune) and matches a wide range of loads. 80-6 meter operation is possible with a 40-foot wire and a ground connection. It performed flawlessly for me and I can’t imagine owning a 7100 without this accessory.

Purchasing those two items will set you back about $1250. With your remaining budget, you can pick up a 30-amp power supply and possibly even a VHF/UHF antenna. There might even be a little change leftover for a telegraph key or set of headphones.

When asked, this is the HF equipment I recommend for any new radio ham.

But understand that I believe the IC-7100 is an excellent value and great choice for radio amateurs of all ages and experience levels. It performs well and provides nearly limitless opportunity to explore more facets of the hobby than almost any other transceiver in a similar price class.

Author: Jeff Davis