An editorial about the current state of Amateur Radio manufacturing

A reader sent this comment on my post about Heathkit’s demise:

“It would be a limited customer base, as with all the China crap coming in
hard to compete. Also noticed that they are selling 2mt/440 ht’s and
advertising that you do not need a license!!!look for interference to
public service and emergency com, reports against amateur radio, going
to be a tough nut to crack”

I have to disagree.  First of all, some of the “crap” from China is actually pretty good, and giving the “big 3” some serious competition.  You know, there was a time, back in the early seventies when everyone referred to the influx of Japanese-manufactured electronics as crap too.  I remember this first-hand, as my interest in SW and AM DXing started in 1972.  Look where that has gone.  The Japanese are now the manufacturers of choice for our radios.  Now, I cannot say that all of these new low cost radios are good (first-hand experience with a radio from FDC backs that up for me), but the BaoFeng UV-3R has set a new bar for value in a low-cost mini HT, as well as the highly-regarded Wouxun radios.  It should be interesting as these companies evolve.  Mobile radios are just starting to trickle in now, and who knows what’s next.  Outside of radio, what about smartphones?  Where are most of them made?

I watched this same thing happen with Shortwave receivers over the last decade.  Companies like Degen, Tecsun, and Kchibo, first got into this market by being the manufacturers for labels like Grundig-Eton.  The early radios were not good, but then a funny thing happened.  The engineers listened to the public and made changes.  They adjusted the performance and feature-set of these radios based on what the users were asking for.  This is something that their predecessors never did.  Sony, Panasonic, Philips, and even Taiwan’s Sangean, rarely made changes based on the enthusiasts comments and reviews.  The result is that some of the best performing portable SW receivers for the money now come from China.  Panasonic, and Magnavox, are out of the market here.  Sony only makes one viable offering now, and Sangean continues to get mediocre reviews, after such a promising start.  I personally own a few Tecsun, and Degen radios and although the build quality is not quite as good as the Sony, it’s VERY close now.

As far as selling to the non-licensed public, that problem has always existed.  I don’t think that you were required to produce a license to buy any of the HTX radios at Radio Shack in the eighties and nineties, as well as the various commercial offerings they had.  You were told by the packaging, and again in the manuals that you were required to have a license.  Very few people at hamfests and flea markets ask for licenses before taking the cash from their potential customers.  Add to that garage sales, and classified ads, and you can see that the ability to buy un-authorized radio equipment has always been there.  Recent experience with jamming in my area led me to a small history lesson while investigating the source of the interference.  This has been going on for a VERY long time, and you’d be surprised how much of the problem is caused by licensed Hams.

Craigslist, and eBay have made this easier, yes, and I believe that the equipment being sold should at least be restricted to its intended purpose (limiting Xmit frequencies for Amateur equipment), but we will never stop the sale of equipment to the unlicensed public, just as we will never stop music and software pirating.

The biggest travesty here is the existing players not recognizing the changing market.  Kenwood’s new rig is gorgeous, but is another multi-thousand dollar rig what this hobby needs?  What the HF side of the hobby needs is a competent, basic 160-10 (or 6) transceiver that can keep the interest of a newly licensed ham going, with a target sell price UNDER $500.  50-100 watts would be ok at this price-point, with the option of adding some power later.  I honestly feel that if Kenwood, Yaesu, and Icom don’t wake up, and adjust to the changing market, they might go the way of the classic Shortwave manufacturers.

Sorry for the long editorial, but this is a sensitive subject for me.  I have only been a ham for 9 months, and with all of the obligations I have, and trying to make sure there’s something left for retirement, plunking down $1000 on a radio at the moment is out of the question.  Many of our new hams are in this same position.  Instead of having most of us stay as Technicians, it would be nice to get these new hams interested in something other than their newly acquired VHF/UHF privileges.  A General ticket is a fairly small step from Technician, and having some economical starter radios would help

Some of the kits, in my Kit Roundup post fit the bill, but most are CW kits.  The SSB kits available are usually low power.  There are a couple of examples with a bit more power, but fully assembled the price is already in the Alinco DX-SR8 range.  Having said that, the Alinco is probably the closest rig to what I’m thinking of price-wise, but seems to get rather mediocre reviews.  I guess for $519 you can’t be all that picky.

This is all my own opinion of course.  Feel free to discuss in the comments.

–Neil W2NDG

Neil Goldstein, W2NDG, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from New York, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

17 Responses to “An editorial about the current state of Amateur Radio manufacturing”

  • Mike - KD0MCV:

    Absolutely, 100% agree with this editorial. Now to go back and read the other article.

    As someone that has been in the hobby just short of two years, I can say that cost is why most non-hams that I meet are staying just that – non-hams. It is what almost kept me from upgrading, becoming stagnated and losing interest.

    I have five rigs, all used. I bought three from various places around cyberspace (Radio Shack HTX-12, Kenwood (?) and Yaesu VX-1R) and wound up paying around $100US each for bad condition equipment. My two rigs I use all the time (ICom 706-MkIIG and Kenwood TS-850SAT) would have normally been out of my price range if not for the seller (local ham) cutting me a great deal on each one. I was promised that when I earned my General ticket, I could buy the ICom for $300 and when I upgraded to Extra, the Kenwood for $450)

    In short, I work long and hard hours at a job that barely pays the bills and if I had not have had the availability of rigs under $500 bucks, I would be stuck with not being on the air, not being able to enjoy the hobby and, most importantly not being able to provide a valuable service to my county as the ARES Emergency Coordinator.

  • Chris Howard. 2E0CTH:

    Totally agree with everything in your article. Big gap in the market for a reasonably priced HF rig. I bought a Yaesu FT 817, when I first got my licence, which is great, but only 5 watts, so a little frustrating making dx contacts.
    I’ve also built an MKARS80 kit, which is excellent, but again only 5 watt output. ,

  • Jock A. Soutar KC6IIH:

    I am involved with our local CERT team and some are taking my clubs Tech class. They are not rich and some will probably purchase some of the lower priced hand helds to get their feet wet.

    I purchased one of the Wouxon 2 meter hand helds for my grandson after he aced his test and I set it up and helped him understand the settings. He uses it often which is good.It actually is a good little radio.I may buy another one for me to keep with my CERT stuff just to have an extra radio with me should we get called out.
    The cheaper priced rigs do have their place in the market.

    Jock KC6IIH

  • Awhile back, we had a new ham show up on the club’s repeater. A very enthusiastic 11-year-old young man named James started showing up, via an inexpensive Chinese HT, and asking questions about everything. His eagerness to learn inspired even the grouchiest of curmudgeons on our repeater. Now, 12-years-old, and a recent General, James made an appearance on our Sunday night tech net the day after passing his General exam. He asked the tech net how he could get on HF for less than the 800 to 1000 dollars he was seeing at the hamfest for new gear, and 350 to 600 dollars for used gear. Add to that, an antenna, and a tuner, and he was heartbroken.

    What happened next was inspirational again for anyone listening that night, as three hams stepped up and offered equipment for free. An old boat anchor of a transceiver, a slightly used G5RV antenna, and a crystal calibrator/marker were offered, for free to this young ham. In addition, advice on how to get it all going came from every member involved. There were plenty of obstacles after that, involving the rig, the microphone, and the antenna, and, to tell the truth, I’m not sure if he’s up and running yet, but he will be.

    This was a great example though, of why we need something like this. A very simple, 50 watt, 80-40-20 transceiver, with very few bells and whistles would capture, and hold the interest of these eager young kids. The Chinese HTs do have their place, but young hams like James snatch them up, and can quickly become discouraged if they don’t live in close proximity to other hams, and/or repeaters. For James, it worked, due to his proximity to an urban area, and he even talks about all of the simplex contacts he has made, but for most of them these radios are quiet, and can be quickly forgotten.

    I think my only issue with the no-code licenses is that Technicians are given little incentive to move up to General, if they aren’t given a larger taste of what it’s like. Yes, I know, 10 meter privileges are there for that, but as 10 quiets down again there isn’t much of a reason to move up to general if they have not been able to experience HF. At least with CW, there was a way to experience some of it.

  • Chris Meisenzahl (K9ROC):

    >> “First of all, some of the “crap” from China is actually pretty good, and giving the “big 3″ some serious competition. You know, there was a time, back in the early seventies when everyone referred to the influx of Japanese-manufactured electronics as crap too. I remember this first-hand, as my interest in SW and AM DXing started in 1972. Look where that has gone. The Japanese are now the manufacturers of choice for our radios.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Phil K7TTI:

    I think Yaesu has responded to the less expensive Chinese rigs. The FT-450D is an excellent value.

  • Don N4KC:

    Another nod of agreement from here, too. I do trust Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu, TenTec, Elecraft and other big manufacturers to know what kind of rigs will sell, though. The Yaesu FT-857D is usually available for about $850, and that would be less than most HF transceivers plus a dual-band mobile for 2M/70cm…plus you get SSB and CW on V/UHF, too.

    I also believe the cost of entry into our hobby is comparatively low if you consider golf, fishing, boating, RC model planes, geo-caching or other potential pursuits. I know it is a challenge for 12-year-olds, but I suspect most gainfully employed 35- or 40-year olds could save a grand for a decent station if he or she really wanted to.

    That being said, it does seem that there would be a market for a three- or four-band HF transceiver with all the basics, and with a price somewhere south of $500. You listening TenTec or Elecraft?

    Don N4KC
    http://www.n4kc.com
    http://www.donkeith.com
    http://n4kc.blogspot.com

  • Wade KJ4WS:

    Has anyone looked at Ebay lately? 35 year old Kenwoods are selling for $ 500.00 and up. The 585 Paragons are listed with $ 1,100.00 Buy it Now Ads. To see a 40 year old Heathkit sell for an outragious price! That lets me know that there is a Big market for a Low Priced and Basic HF Tranceiver. Heathkit would have been a well recognised name and would have probably sold LOTs of Basic HF Rigs. Our country needs a big lift. Lets all hope that Ten-Tec or some other U.S. based company can step up to the plate and offer something basic. If not, all of our new Hams will be talking on Chow Mein or EggfoYong radios from China soon.

  • Don N4KC,

    I guess many of the new hams I see coming into the club are ex CBers, who are used to spending $200 – $400 on a setup. I get your point about the cost of entry into other hobbies. As a computer enthusiast I can draw a comparison. A decent PC laptop (key word is DECENT) definitely costs a lot more than $500, and a Mac laptop is $1000 or more. So, I can understand why it seems like we should be able to afford to spend $1000 on a decent transceiver. In the current economy though, there are plenty of us that are trying to do more with less then we had 5 years ago.

    I think the issue is that the people we are attracting to the hobby lately (other than the kids) either are already well invested into other hobbies, or can’t really afford to invest in them at this time. The attraction of emergency services and an almost social-network like structure in our clubs and nets is bringing in a new wave of Hams, and the equipment required for that part of the hobby is very inexpensive. I just want to give them an economical step from that $50 – $100 HT up to an HF rig. To someone that just laid out $75 for an HT and $150 for a used mobile rig, a smaller step to the next level would keep them interested. Then, later on, they’ll buy those $1000 rigs. It’s the same formula the car companies do with low-end cars. Make a decent, reliable product, and give the customer a good experience, and they WILL come back for more.

    TenTec is a good possibility here because of the connections they already have. They already re-sell one of the YouKits products. I could see them modifying the TJ2A or TJ4A as a nice starter rig, with an optional amp. The ability to do this exists, and I would think that even established Hams who can afford dream-rigs like the Kenwood TS-990S would drop $350 on a nice backup rig that would work well for field day, or fit in a small go-bag for travelling. I really hope one of these companies has realized this.

  • Phil,
    THe FT-450D IS an excellent value, I will agree, but is still a $1000 rig. We need a sub-$500 rig to keep these new hams interested. They WILL buy more later.

  • Tom. Kb3hg:

    Well, there are some used HF WARC radios that can be had. It takes a bit of looking and research (Google being your friend. The hybrid radios can occasionally be had for a reasonable amount. All FT-101s, TS-520s and the likes are not all junk.
    my first rig was a HW-32 20m ssb, that was 90.00 in 1979 used. Purchased a Collins Transmitter CW AM only wish I kept that it was nice I purchased an FT-707 new (open box) in the 80’s and have since purchased another that was on Eb.. . paid 240.00 for that one. You can get if you look. Lots of beat up equipment out there but a lot of good stuff. I Know several people who give stuff to new ops. and I plan on doing that myself.
    73,
    Tom

  • Lynn W3JLC:

    I too must agree with your article. I have had my General Ticket for some time but I just cannot afford to plop down $1000 for an HF radio. I currently use a Kenwood Hybrid. It works great and I got it at a very good price two years ago. I would really like to purchase one of the newer HF radios but as I stated before I just cannot afford one. If the Chinese manufacturers want to get into the market I really think they will do a respectable job it may take a few years but they will get there. I would really prefer to stick with one of the older manufacturers just because of their reputation for building quality gear but as the old saying goes: Money talks!

    73,
    Lynn

  • Matt W1MST:

    Ed Griffin from Wouxun.us shared this with me by e-mail:

    “I’ve been told by more than one Chinese manufacturer that a HF radio is in the planning stage. I don’t know how far the planning has progressed but after they accomplish the goal of a dual band mobile, I’m sure they will be working on one.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I love my Wouxun HT. But if the development speed of the dual band mobile is any indication, a Wouxun HF radio may be a LONG way off….

  • Anthony KD8RTT:

    I agree! I am a senior in high school and I just got my ticket in February. I’m trying to save up for an HF rig, but it’s a lot of money. Local hams have been extremely helpful, but unfortunately, no one has any gear to lend me/sell me a price I can afford. I’ve just been messing with my FT60R on local repeaters now. I LOVE ham radio, but gee would it be nice to be able to get on HF without spending the money I’ve set aside for college!

  • Thomas K4SWL:

    Good comments, Neil. Being a QRPer (and SWL) I tend to buy less equipment, but aim for quality stuff. One thing worth noting is the quality of radio that can be purchased domestically. I’m amazed at the innovations coming out of the likes of Elecraft and Ten-Tec and many mom and pop companies building small SDRs and radio accessories.

    At the Hamvention, the big manufacturers are typically the last folks I visit–I’m simply less inclined to buy a multi-thousand dollar rig, with bells and whistles I do not use. On the same note, I have many contester/DXer friends that are eager to see if the new TS-990S, for example, could give them an edge. I totally respect that, it’s just not my bag.

    Anyway, it’s great to see that competition does still spur serious innovation in our radio world.

    Cheers & 73,
    Thomas
    K4SWL

    http://qrper.com
    http://swling.com/blog

  • Casey TI2/NA7U:

    Well, I didn’t read all the comments in detail, but a quick scan shows me that y’all are falling for the same trap the rest of the Wal-Mart shoppers are. It’s not like the Chinese are geniuses and know how to make quality radios cheaper. The manufacturers there are heavily subsidized by the gov’t there in many ways, which gives them an unfair advantage in the markets. I’m not a buy-American-only guy myself, but just pointing this out. Short-term gain and long-term demise seems to be the U.S. mantra for decades now.

  • John KC2WEX:

    I think that HF is too expensive to get into so why upgrade when the itch will get you to do HF eventually. Remember when takeing the pressure off people was a good idea by eliminating the code, later when the intrest was there, the tech learned the code. This same thing applies if the companies were to consider a less expensive way to get into HF, Then the tech might upgrade even sooner maybe because my friends are all genrals so I got to try itmyself.

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