Let’s face it, ham radio as a hobby has a pretty high barrier to entry. First you have to study, then pass the exam, then potentially spend thousands on equipment to actually get on the air and start making contacts. We take a look at how the more budget constrained (or just tight fisted) can set up a station without breaking the bank.
Buy a Baofeng UV-5R – end of article. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. I’m kidding – while it’s hard to argue with $20 as an entry point, I’m really talking about an HF station. The Baofeng would certainly be useful for chatting with people near you on the local repeaters, but it’s not going to get you any juicy DX. So what are we going to need for DXing, if we’re starting from scratch?
- Power supply
Can all of these things be found “on the cheap”? Let’s investigate a few potential options to get on the air. Prices change daily so the listed prices are only a guide, but they are the total price for each item including shipping.
This may be the most difficult part of the setup to source, not because there aren’t any out there, but because the models available may not be very suited to radio. Some of the cheaper options may not be very reliable. Some may spit out all kinds of nasty interference that is going to ruin our listening (especially switch mode varieties). This may be one area of the build where the price difference between ordering from China and your local ham store isn’t great enough for the import to win, especially once you take shipping into account.
- Nice-Power SPS-W3010 $56 – 0-30v adjustable, 10A max (only suitable for QRP)
- GVDA Lab PSU $67 – 0-30v adjustable, 10A max (only suitable for QRP)
- QJE QJ-PS30SW $76 – Fixed 13.8v output, 20A continuous, 30A peak
- QJE PS30SWIV $92 – 9-15v adjustable, 20A continuous, 30A peak
It’s very important to check the input voltage of the supply. Some will accept both 110v (USA) or 220v (Europe), but some only work with one or the other.
This is undoubtedly the area with the most options. Your choice is going to be influenced by what type of activity interests you (CW, SSB, digimodes, etc), whether you plan to operate from home or go portable, features you particularly want or need, and a lot of personal preference.
- uSDX+ $100 – It may not be super polished, but HF rigs don’t get any cheaper than this! Based on an open source design, it offers a 5w output, covers 8 bands (80m/60m/40m/30m/20m/17m/15m/10m), and supports all modes (USB, LSB, CW, AM, FM). Full uSDX specs. A version is also available with a built in ATU for around $160.
- Xiegu G1M $200 – Xiegu are rapidly making a name for themselves by producing very usable, low cost ham radios. The G1M offers a 5w output, covers 4 bands (80m/40m/20m/15m), and supports CW, USB, and LSB modes. Full G1M specs.
- Xiegu G106 $250 – For just a little more, the G106 offers some extra bands (80m up to 10m) and few other features. Full G106 specs.
- mcHF clone $335 – The radio that sparked off the trend of Chinese HF rigs. Based off the open source mcHF designed in the UK, these are available badged as RS-918, RS-928, and more recently as straight up mcHF clones. This one potentially influenced ICOM’s IC-705 as it was the first to go with this particular form factor. Can be a bit fiddly to use, but it offers incredible value.
- Xiegu G90 $450 – One of the most popular Chinese HF rigs (you’ve probably seen many YouTubers using one of these for POTA etc). Robust build quality, colour screen, and a heap of great features such as a built in ATU means you get a lot of radio for your money. Full G90 specs.
- Xiegu X5105 $660 – The first rig in this lineup that includes a built in battery, making it an all-in-one option for portable operating. Full X5105 specs.
- Xiegu X6100 $605 – The bigger brother of the X5105, despite having a full colour screen, actually manages to come in a little cheaper. You could think of this as a “poor man’s IC-705” as it offers most of the same features, at half the price.
- Hamgeek PMR-171 $750 – The first true “shack in a box” to come out of China. Covering HF, 6m, 2m, and 70cms with lots of modern features such as Bluetooth control, and even DMR (optional) it’s the most versatile radio in this lineup.
This may well be another area where you could do better at your local ham shop due to high shipping costs. Coax is one area where people often scrimp and save, but it can have a huge influence on performance, so while these options will get you going, it would be prudent to save up and get some decent quality coax from reputable suppliers such as Messi & Paoloni.
We’re using a 10m length here to enable comparison, but of course, you may need longer runs to suit your particular setup.
- RG316 $17 – Lightweight option that’s great for portable HF applications.
- RG58 $18 – Cannot really recommend using RG58 unless you are VERY budget constrained.
- LMR400 $33 – Much less flexible, but considerably lower loss that the other options.
You could of course just grab some wire and make up a basic dipole or 1/4 wave vertical for next to nothing, but let’s look at commercial antenna options.
- QRPguys No Tune EFHW $15 – End fed half wave antenna that can be configured for any single band from 80m to 10m. Does not include wire.
- QRPguys UnUntenna $19 – Random wire with a 9:1 unun. Covers lots of bands, but these are not very efficient. Does not include wire.
- QRPguys EFHW with Tuner $25 – This will operate from 40m-15m and includes a simple ATU to make it work. Does not include wire.
- K4EDF EFHW $56 – Covers 40m, 20m, 15m, and 10m, and includes wire, the UnUn and mounting kit.
- PAC-12 $125 – 1/4 Ground Plane antenna that covers 40m-10m. Packs down into an included carry case.
Putting it all together
So let’s look at 2 different packages and see what you get.
Cheapest possible station
A full HF station from the ground up for $188, that’s quite impressive – you could spend more than that just on coax! Is it the best station ever? Of course not, but it gets you on the air, making contacts, and having fun while you save up to replace each component in turn.
Nowhere near as budget friendly, but when you consider the entire station is coming in at around half the cost of an Icom IC-705, that’s still pretty damn good.
Sure, we would all love a 200ft tower with a 4 element quad fed with heliax, with signals coming from a high-end radio like the Apache ANAN, but that’s not the reality for most people. Certainly not for those just dipping their toe in the water or just starting out in the hobby. There’s absolutely no shame in taking the budget route, and there’s no hurry to build a “super station” right out of the gate. Improving your setup and upgrading things as you progress is all part of the fun. As the saying goes, it’s no fun if it’s too easy!