Choosing best high-end HT (amateur radio handheld transceiver)

Here is some information for those looking for a high-end HT. My requirements are:

  • At least dual-band (tri,quad-band is a plus), including 144 and 440 bands at minimum
  • Good wideband receiver
  • All-mode receiver
  • Convenient control
  • Weather proof
  • Ruggedly built
  • Having a lot of features, leaving a lot of space for experimentation
  • Major brand
  • Price should be “reasonable”. It’s clear that an HT with the features listed above won’t be inexpensive, but I want to avoid paying extra for features that I don’t need or paying for something I can get cheaper in a different radio.

These are very expensive requirements and only a few HTs fit them. There are three major companies that produce something that fits most of the requirements: Icom, Kenwood and Yaesu with the following models:

Icom Kenwood Yaesu
Icom IC-91A
Icom IC-91A, from $320, dualbander, upgradable to D-STAR
Icom IC-92AD
Icom IC-92AD, from $540, dualbander, suports D-STAR
Kenwood TH-F6A
Kenwood TH-F6A, from $304, legendary radio, excellent scanner, tribander, superwide receiver (0.1MHz-1.3GHz), 5W on all three bands
Kenwood TH-D72A
Kenwood TH-D72A, from $485, dualbander, has GPS and APRS support
Yaesu VX-7R
Yaesu VX-7R, from $320, quadbander, waterproof
Yaesu VX-8DR
Yaesu VX-8DR, from $410, quadbander (with limitations on 220 and 50), advanced APRS support, GPS and Bluetooth upgradeability, WIRES, tree receivers, stereo WFM

These are top models from the top brands. I looked carefully at the basic set of features and the price tags and scratched out IC-92AD and TH-D72A from the list immediately. These are good radios, but I can get the same features for lower price.

Further I scratched our IC-91A. It’s a dualbander, the price tag is the same as F6A, but F6A supports three bands and has wider receiver, supports SSB/CW. So if I have $320 I’d buy F6A and don’t eve think about 91A. The only benefit this Icom has is D-STAR upgradability, but UT-121 card that makes 91A work as 91D (i.e. support D-Star) costs from $220 – that’s way too much for a feature that I don’t really need at the moment. Sorry I-Com, you’re out :(

So the two radios left are legendary Kenwood TH-F6A serving hams for more than 9 years and supermodern Yaesu VX-8DR. Both radios are awesome, but very different. So the question “Which one is better, F6A or 8DR” is totally incorrect. These radios are very different, and everybody has to decide which features are more important to him/herself personally. Here is a small chart that summarizes pros and cons for these two great radios:

Feature Kenwood TH-F6A Yaesu VX-8DR
Receiver 0.1MHz-1.3GHz, the widest among HTs, the quality is extremely high 0.5MHz-0.999GHz, really good, but RX on F6As seems to be somewhat better
Modes AM/FM/WFM with SSB/CW receiver – the latter is quite unique feature, no other popular HTs have it. Though according to forums it doesn’t work well, you still need a mobile rig to work with SSB efficiently AM/FM/WFM – the usual
Monitoring 2 VFOs, simultaneous monitoring 2VFOs + stereo WFM radio, all work simultaneously – that’s unique for 8DR
Weather-proof Decent. It will survive everyday use by careful owner for many years, but may not survive direct exposure to rain You can use it underwater! Can you? Well, it’s you problem you can’t speak underwater, not 8DRs. Seems like a great choice for stereo radio in shower
Comm Connectors Double 3.5mm stereo jacks seem archaic and silly Proprietary connector seems … well, proprietary, you need to buy it, you can’t easily DIY it
Software Basic, but free (with DIY cable) More advanced but expensive ($80 with cable)
Accessories Very few Tons! Maybe this is the most expandable radio available. Besides regular batteries, mics, belt clips, chargers etc you can also add GPS unit and stereo bluetooth headset. Saying that the prices in average much higher than for the Kenny accessories and fully-packed 8DR (with all bells and frills) will cost you close to $1000
Form-factor Seems fitting small palms better Seems fitting larger palms better. Also sits in pocket better b/c it’s more flat than F6A
Overall look Good Awesome! Subjectively the sexiest HT on the market.
Display Ok, good for basic information only Excellent, displays a lot of information
Controls/menus Easy-to-use menu, smaller non-illuminated keypad Quite cumbersome. B/c it has way more features than F6A the menu is significantly larger (120+ items!), many buttons have 3 functions. But the keypad is bigger and it has backlight
FM Just a regular FM Stereo WFM!
APRS support No (i.e. you need external TNC and GPS for it) Advanced. TNC is embedded, GPS is an option + supports receiving APRS data
GPS No Possible
Hackability There are a few hacks discovered during the 9 year history on the market. You can expand the transmission frequencies range. Also you can access service menu, though it’s not clear what you can do with it besides killing the battery One hack is noticeable which is expanding the transmission frequencies range even wider than F6A does. Good thing is there are hardware (warranty voiding) and software versions of this hack.
Firmware upgradeability Yes! Yes! Yes! Send it to the factory for upgrade :(
Bands 5W on 144/220/440 5W on 144/440, 1W on 50 and 1.5W on 220. Stock antenna sucks on both F6A and 8DR and you need to get a replacement. You also need to realize there is no single antenna that will work great on all those bands. And 50 requires a very special antenna to be usable :) Diamond SRH320A seems like a great choice for both radios for the top three bands, but it won’t work on 6m at all.
Generations The first bunch of F6A was released in 2001. That’s 9 years ago! Thru all these years it remained a great top-notch HT, though it looks like Kenwood put some effort into making it cheaper (=worse). For instance they replaced linear power supply with impulse one. I guess people who like listening and charging simultaneously won’t be happy about that. Internals quality also slightely degraded. 8DR is a new/upgraded and improved version of VX-8R, so Yaesu engineers probably had a chance to fix some glitches in the original version. Overall users do not complain much about 8DRs bugs, though F6A (especially the old ones) seem more debugged.
Price tag from $304 shipped at the moment from $410 shipped at the moment (with no accessories which will cost alot, see above)

So, which one to choose is up to you, it depends on what you’re going to use the radio for. I chose VX-8DR because

  • I want to experiment with different frequencies and antennas. 6m on 8DR definitely gives me a chance for this
  • I want the HT also to work as a regular radio. 8DRs stereo WFM definitely beats what what F6A has
  • I want a “bulletproof” device so I can drop it, use near ocean, listen to it in shower. F6A can’t do that and 8DR can
  • I definitely want expanded TX frequencies range. The only way I can do it on Kenny is by voiding warranty
  • 8DR seems having more potential for mods as it is very much software-based
  • APRS features are not critical to me (APRS is cool and I highly recommend it to those who didn’t deal with it yet. I just have more appropriate equipment for it) as well as WIRES, GPS and other frills. But it’s nice to have these options to make the radio even more multifunctional.

I’m so sorry TH-F6A, you’re a great legendary very well-made radio. You’re just too old (9+ years is quite an age for a piece of electronics) and I choose a modern device. I’ll be missing your siperwide RX, SSB/CW and 5W on 70cm.

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