Once you have your ham radio license, it’s decision time and one of the most difficult ones is choosing an HF radio! Do you go with a more modest priced radio to start or jump into the deep end and get one with all the bells and whistles? At Ham Radio Prep, we say, look at both!
If you’re looking for affordable, entry-level radios to start setting up a shack with, we have you covered. Be sure to go watch our “Top 5 HF Radios for beginners.” In this video, we’ll go where the budget is no object! Here are 5 “crazy” amazing radios you’ll aspire to if you become a serious DX contester or only buy the best of the best!
HF Radios for Serious DX’ers
Before we get started, just a reminder, these picks are our own. We have not been compensated for any of the radios we mention.
In the video where we covered the “starter HF radios” video, we maxed out spending around $1,500 on a loaded ICOM IC-705 QRP radio. We’re back in QRP land with a radio that comes as parts if you just feel like you want to assemble the components yourself.
1. Elecraft KX-3
We’re talking about the Elecraft KX-3. Elecraft is well known in the industry as one of the higher end makers of Amateur Radio Transceivers. This is why they are one of the top choices of serious DXers.
The KX-3 Shack in a Pack comes with the parts to assemble your 160-6 meter QRP radio. Also included is a portable panadapter for seeing your waterfall, a battery charger, some adapters and cables and a carrying case. I’ve used this radio and I have seen it nicely handle SSB, CW and Digital. It has an internal voice recorder and CW keyer. All this for $2,874.05 with assembly required. Add in another $40 if they put it together for you. (All prices as of November, 2023)
One thing nice about this radio is the broad number of add-ons that Elecraft offers. That includes a CW paddle that mounts to the front of the rig and a portable amplifier if you want to pump it up to 100 watts output.
2. Elecraft K4D
Let’s stay with Elecraft for our next pick, which is their top of the line desktop radio, the Elecraft K4D. A beautiful radio with plenty of front-of-the-box controls, dual waterfalls show on a 7 inch touch screen. That’s a way of showing off their dual-receiver functionality. The 100 watt K4D is currently about $5,800.
Expandability is part of the benefit you get from choosing Elecraft and several other high-end radio systems we’ll discuss. For instance, while the K4D is designed for HF, it was designed with the ability to include a transverter. So you can add 2 Meters or other functionality. Elecraft also has a line of amplifiers, so easy integration of more power is another benefit.
Let’s take a look at the back to give you an idea of what a high-end radio provides for options. The K4D has HDMI video out. Just in case that 7 inch screen is not big enough for you, you can connect an external monitor to show your waterfall. Three HF antenna inputs are available, and Antenna 4 can work with your transverter. You can pass through a dedicated receive antenna as well.
Want to calibrate your radio to stay right on frequency? A 10 MHz “Reference In” connection lets you provide it a calibration source. Just a few of the options you will find on these high end radios. I also like the fact that it uses PowerPole connectors for power which are becoming more and more popular.
3. Yaesu FT-DX101-MP-Max
If your price range is in the range of Five to Six thousand dollars, you may also want to consider the Yaesu FT-DX101-MP-Max. Up until now we have been limited to a top power output of 100 Watts, but the MP-Max doubles that to a 200 Watt output. That comes with a special power supply and speaker unit, so no worries about matching there.
Like the Elecraft, this is part radio and part computer. It can be connected to your LAN. That allows for remote operating with additional software and an “external LAN unit.” That means you can use your PC speaker and microphone and operate from your desk at the office if that rare DX comes online. That’s an additional $300 or so. Also like the Elecraft it sports a 7-inch screen on the front. We also appreciate its many many connections on the back for things like an amp, tuner and external display. Gigaparts has a version of this available now.
4. Flex 6600
If you want to go full Software Defined Radio, the top of the line in ham radio is the Flex Signature Series of units. You can get your first Flex, the 6400 for around $2,300. However, we are looking at top of the line here, so you’ll want to consider choosing the Flex 6600. This receiver can tune 4 different bands or modes at once. So you fire up the radio, open a window on your computer, and see where the DX is.
So that’s an important point to make. As a “software defined radio” you need computer hardware to make it work. The re are no controls or screens on the front panel of this radio. Just a power button. To run this radio you need to connect the 6600 to a local area network and a decently powerful computer.
If you prefer knobs and buttons you do have options however. Flex offers a device called the Maestro. This one is controlling the Flex radio in my shack at home. The Maestro Control Console is a front panel for your radio, with an 8 inch screen and all the knobs you want. Connect that to WiFi and you can use your radio from your back deck or easy chair, or here in the studio. Latency on WiFi is low enough to support doing CW with no lag.
We haven’t talked about what it might cost to get to the full legal limit of output power, so let’s add an amp to our 6600 option. Flex offers the Power Genius XL to take you to the full legal limit of power. That’s an investment of $7,700. Plus an additional 15 Amp circuit in your shack to provide all the juice this amp will draw.
Additional options for the 6600 include their on-board GPS Disciplined Oscillator. That ensures your radio is right on frequency every time, for an additional $750. You can also get handles or rack mounts for your Flex.
Full disclosure, our instructor Jim, N4BFR, has been a Flex user for years. First with a 6500 and now with a used 6700. He mostly operates with computer controls and the little jogwheel accessory they sell. He likes that all the connections are made in the back of the radio so he can keep the front area looking clean.
We’re sorry to hear that Flex has stopped production on its 6700, which had 8 independent receivers. If that interests you, Flex occasionally has refurbished units available via their website.
So a new Flex 6600 with Power Genius amplifier would cost you around $12,300. But that’s not the ultimate radio.
5. ICOM IC-7851
We give you the ICOM IC-7851.
For $13,299.95 you get this 200 watt native output monster of a radio. I counted 17 knobs and more than 70 buttons on the front of the 7851 so the right setting is always at your fingertips. The design gives you the best of both worlds. The 7851 has both Direct Digital Sampling and IC conversion with a local oscillator. Three digital signal processors are there to handle the load.
Need a fast spectrum scope while hunting your DX? You can see a megahertz wide swaths of spectrum at a 1 pixel resolution on its big LCD screen, or add an external monitor. That GPS option we talked about with the Elecraft and Flex? That’s built into the 7851.
What’s on the back? 6 antenna ports. Four for receive / transmit and two for receive only. Think about that. If you are mostly on 40, 20, 15 and 10 meters you can have an antenna cut to each band, and just switch in the radio! Of course it has USB audio connectivity and an ethernet port. With ICOM’s remote software, you can be anywhere around the world on the internet and work DX from your shack.
The ICOM IC-7851 plugs directly into AC power, so just think of all the money you’ll save on a power supply! (Kidding!)
When to Consider High-End Radios?
So, who’s the market for these high end radios? Lots of serious DX’ers are buyers of these radios. Look at news of DXpeditions and see what they take with them. Many of them are setting up with a Flex or an Elecraft because of their quality receivers and consistent performance. For instance, the October 2023 W8S trip to Swains Island had both models on the journey.
When should you consider radios on this list? If you are investing in a long term shack with multiple antennas is a good start. Those with high DX and contesting ambitions will also probably be interested in shopping for these rigs.
So let’s recap these 5 “crazy extreme” radios that may not be as crazy as you thought.
- Elecraft KX-3 QRP
- Elecraft K4D – 100 Watt HF
- Flex Radio 6600 – 100 Watt HF transiter with Maestro and Power Genius XL Amp
- Yaesu FT-DX101-MP-Max – 200 Watt HF
- ICOM IC-7851 – 200 Watt HF
If you are not quite ready to take out a second mortgage to pick up a radio, check out our companion video. It’s called “5 HF Ham Radios for beginners!”
73 for now and happy shopping!