A portable transceiver for QRP SSB SOTA?

This morning, I was browsing the drafts folder of QRPer.com–the place where I store ideas, images, notes, and future posts.

I discovered a draft post with the following inquiry from Motters (M7TRS) dating back several months. I suspect Motters may still be contemplating this decision so perhaps we can chime in with some suggestions and advice [apologies, OM, for the delay!].

Motters writes:

Advice required.

I want to get into QRP SOTA portable voice HF.

My dream station would the flagship IC-705 due to the vhf, uhf and HF plus the waterfall. I am on a shoe sting budget so have to choose wisely for my radio as this will probably be a one time hit for a long time.

The radios in the list are IC-705, FT-818ND, Xiegu G90 and the Xiegu X6100.

The antenna would probably be a linked dipole. Which radio would you choose?

Question open to anyone

Motters (M7TRS)

Great question, Motters. The radios you’ve chosen range anywhere from $450 – 1400US (of course you know the prices in GBP) so much, of course, depends on your budget.

Knowing SSB is your mode of choice, I would likely focus on radios that could deliver 10 watts or more of power output. You’re in the UK and plan to do SOTA ops there, so 5 watts will work perfectly fine, but I’ve always felt like 10 watts SSB is a proper QRP “full gallon.” Many QRP contests consider 10 watts proper QRP in SSB mode. The difference between 5 watts and 10 watts is about 3dB of gain.

The most expensive option–the Icom IC-705–would be a superb choice in so many respects. It would cover all HF/VHF/UHF frequencies, it has a rechargeable battery pack, it’s fairly lightweight, and has excellent features for an SSB operator. With an external battery attached, it’ll yield 10 watts. It also sports superb performance. Since you’ll be using a resonant antenna, you won’t notice the lack of an internal ATU.

You can’t go wrong with the IC-705, but I think you know that already since you describe it as your dream radio.

Here’s my Icom IC-705 review.

On the opposite end of the price spectrum is the Xiegu G90 and I believe that radio might serve you very well. It’s not as compact as the IC-705, has no internal battery, only covers HF, and has no SSB message memories. That said, it can output up to 20 watts and has a superb built-in ATU should you ever need one (my experience is that in SOTA, you will!). It’s a solid radio and well-loved by many in the world of field radio.

Here’s my 2020 review of the Xiegu G90.

I’ve used my Yaesu FT-817ND on numerous SOTA activations and I love it. It’s extremely durable, has great performance characteristics, and sports HF/VHF/UHF in all modes. I love the fact that it has two antenna ports!

As an SSB op, you’d be limited to five watts with the 817 series and six watts with the 818 series. Like the G90, it has no built-in voice message memory keying. But again: with SOTA in Europe? This should not be a problem. You’ll have so many chaser after you, getting your four contacts should not be a problem.

The FT-817/818 is very modifiable, too and there are loads of used units on the market. Many SSB operators add in-line compression (a SOTA Beams product).  As an SSB op, you might not immediately need a narrow SSB filter either.

The cost-per-wow can’t be beat, in my opinion.

You also mention the Xiegu X6100. I would encourage you to check out my full review where I go into quite a lot of detail about the pros and cons of this radio. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

In short? I’m just not the biggest fan. It would certainly serve you well in SSB and has a lot of great features on paper. It’s pretty fun to use as well, but I just haven’t been terribly impressed with the quality so far. The main issue is the fact that the receiver has a weak front end. This is less an issue on a remote SOTA summit, but it you live near a broadcast station, for example, you’ll certainly need an external BCI filter else the front end of the radio will overload.

Personally, I prefer the other radios you mentioned.

If you’re considering a radio in the IC-705’s price bracket, then you should also consider the Elecraft KX2. The KX2 is likely one of the most popular SOTA rigs out there–especially for SSB ops.

It’s super compact, lightweight, has voice message memory keying, 10 watts of output off of an internal or external battery, and if you opt for the internal ATU, you literally have a shack-in-a-box. It even has a built-in microphone.

The KX2 is the most versatile HF field radio I own. The wait time for a new one is currently (Aug 2022) months, not weeks. I do see used ones pop up on the market, though.

In my world, the KX2 is a no-brainer. I’ve come so close to buying a second one, in fact!

Don’t delay

I suppose if I could offer any practical advice, it would be not to put off playing SOTA for years to save up for the “perfect” radio. Once you actually get out there in the field and gain some real-world experience, you’ll quickly learn what you like and dislike.

And keep in mind: transceivers tend to hold their value quite well on the used market–especially in 2022 when manufactures are struggling to keep some new models in stock. If you buy a radio and it just doesn’t fit your operating style, then sell it and buy another.

If you haven’t already, I would strongly encourage you to check out my recent article: Choosing a Field Radio: How to find the perfect transceiver for your outdoor radio activities!

I hope readers will chime in with their advice as well. I’m sure there are a lot of points I’ve neglected to mention here.

Good luck with your choice!

36 thoughts on “A portable transceiver for QRP SSB SOTA?”

  1. Another radio to consider is the Lab 599 TX-500. It has 10 watts, is lightweight and weather resistant. I recently sold a few of my QRP radios and the two I kept were the IC-705 and TX-500.

    1. It is a great little radio from all I have read and seen.

      But it doesn’t meet Motter’s VHH/UHF requirements and it uses non standard connections for all of it’s peripherals. So I doubt that he will be happy with the TX-500 and he isn’t saving much money.

      W4MKH
      https://w4mkh-qrp.com/

    2. I second Scott’s comments regarding the TX-500.

      I just love this radio for durability and performance. I use a digirig interface for data and small battery pack. The radio has no ATU but its built in pseudo-VNA graphical display lets you immediately see your pwr/swr curve if you are using an EFHW.

      A good all-rounder (I prefer to 705!) but HRO are having difficulties with supplies right now!

  2. Thomas’ remarks are all thought-provoking, but neither the question-poser Motters nor Thomas mentioned the Xiegu G-106. It’s just coming out now, though there are a handful of reviews already from prototypes and spec analysis. I’m just about to start my HF/QRP journey, and am strongly considering the Xiegu G-106. I think I’ll watch as it comes into full production and more reviews appear, but the price:capability:fun ratios all appear interesting for me.

    I should probably add that I’m thinking digital modes for most of my HF/QRP goals, with an eye to EmComms, less concerned about voice. Planning end-fed wire antenna used in inverted V, sloper, and NVIS horizontal deployments.

    Curious if others are monitoring the Xiegu G-106?

    1. I’ll definitely check out and review the G-106. At present, only a few pre-production models are floating around out there. It could very well be a good option for sure.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  3. Thank you Motters for the question, and thank you Thomas for sharing. I for one love my KX2, it is truly a ‘shack in the box’ and is an excellent radio for POTA and SOTA work.

    73
    wb8yxf

  4. I hesitated to pickup an IC705 for a few months. I finally did on my way to Louisiana this past week. I don’t know what I was waiting for. Likely the sticker shock. Not regrets though, what a fantastic radio. My TX500 may not see quite as many outings in the future.

    Joshua
    KO4AWH

  5. I have owned or still own a IC-705 (my dream radio too), a G90 and the X6100. The X6100 is a sweet little radio and fun to use but it has some quirks such as the front-end overloading. I sold mine last week to help finance my 705.

    The G90 is a great little radio. I have never used it in the field but I have used it from my backyard numerous times and made lots of contacts.

    I have never owned a Ft-871 or 818 but I did own an FT-857D for several years. Long enough to know that I don’t like Yaesu’s menu system. For me, I can’t respond to changing HF conditions fast enough when I have to remember which buried menu to use.

    I would love to have a KX2 as it is a wonderful radio and maybe someday I will get one. The biggest negative for me is the wait time.

    The IC-705 is the perfect radio for me though I admit it overwhelmed me some when I got it a week ago. I have now adapted my son’s philosophy of “Buy once. Weep once.”. I made all kinds of excuses to justify buying lesser radios as I couldn’t justify the cost of the 705. But now that I have a 705 I am left wondering why I didn’t just bite the bullet and buy it earlier. The only real issue with it is its lack of antenna tuner but that is easy to get around; just use resonant antennas or get one of the many cheap tuners on the market. A simple tuner kit from QrpGuys will do the trick.

    My vote is to follow your dreams and get the Icom IC-705. It is the only true “shack in a box” available.

    W4MKH
    https://w4mkh-qrp.com/

    1. I didn’t realize the original mcHF was still available. I thought they stopped production to focus on the next version.

  6. Don’t get me wrong, I’d buy a KX2 if i really wanted to splurge, but i keep coming back to the fact that the 818 works just so damn well.

    6 watts is plenty to make consistent SSB contacts.

    The menu system can take a little practice when you’re new to it, but once you’re rolling, getting to the key features you’ll use when operating becomes a breeze.

    While it’s not a shack in a box, the cost will allow you to go and build one yourself! Get that extra antenna, tuner, battery, throw-line, mast, side-rails (how about an awesome backpack or hiking boots?) – you’ll have no regrets.

    1. I wrote a rather lengthy article about the FT-817/818 for The Spectrum Monitor magazine. You should see it within the next month or two.

      I agree–even being 20+ years on the market, it’s a solid radio and very hard to beat.

  7. Xiegu G90 Is too heavy for serious SOTA. I know because I have it.
    Perfect spot is the FT817 / FT818.

    1. I have a G90 and an 817. Is the weight that much different? I guess it depends how far you carry it 😉 And, of course, the G90 requires more battery.

      I like them both. The 817 rx is better quality, it uses less power, and it has vhf/uhf. The G90 has 20w, a tuner that will match anything, and some nice display features. It just depends on what I want to do on a particular day.

  8. For a shoe string budget, the Xiegu 5105 has got it all but the antenna. Even at 5 watts you only gain 1/2 s unit going to 10 watts. With a good antenna and proper adjustment of built in EQ and speech compression you can make many contacts. Propagation has a lot to do with a good or bad day. The only thing I wish the 5105 had was 2 meter. I have read much better reviews of the 5105 over the 6100. And for the price on a used market is a buy. Yes I own a 5105 and an 897D

    1. I now have an 891 on my desk where the 897 used to be but it’s still under the desk and I doubt I’ll ever part with it. Yes the tech is old school but what a great radio.

      1. Thomas, I was curious if you still held that opinion on 5105 vs. 6100. I have a 6100 mostly as my everyday “bring it along” radio that I would be upset if it were damaged / stolen, but not crushed as I would be losing my KX2. But I’m just not feeling the love for it and I can’t help but notice that Radioddity is selling the 6100 for less than the 5105 . . . I wonder if the shine is off the 6100 a bit and demand staying strong for the 5105

  9. Thomas, I think that’s a very considered response to Motter’s query. The killer line is, “don’t wait for the perfect radio”!

    Just get out there and enjoy radio from the best shack in the World!

    Cheers,
    Fraser MM0EFI

  10. I would like to add another, lesser-known, transceiver to consider… the FX-4C. I own this radio and a 705. The 705 is a great radio, but it has a lot of features that I don’t use. The fx-4c is less than 1/2 the price of a 705, and about 1/2 the size of a kx2. No internal battery, but if you want 10w either radio will need an external battery. If the price of a 705 is just out of reach then this one would get you on the air. He’s out of stock at the moment(waiting on parts).
    https://bg2fx.com/

    1. An excellent suggestion that I had forgotten about. I hope to review one of these in the near future!

      1. If you don’t get your hands on one before then, I’ll be bringing my fx-4c to the W4 SOTA campout in October. You can play with it there.

  11. If the 705 is your dream, you should probably go for it! Great radio. I’ve wanted a MTR4 or MTR5 for a long time, and have had a kit for a long time…finally sold it. My go to pair is my KX2 and a handheld. The KX2 is the standard. Light, has internal or external batteries, goes from 6m to 80m, CW, voice, data. All the quick need items are one or two touches away. Very quick. I prefer having a separate handheld (HT) for VHF/UHF. same or more power and there are times I only need VHF/UHF and the smaller handheld is the ticket. When operating with a group, I can play HF and have the HT on next to me listening for my group notices or comments on the side. There are times I don’t bring the KX2, no time for HF antennas, and do quick spur-of-the-moment activations with a tri-band HT. In the end, it is all about how you have fun and what you enjoy. As a beginner, you just have to make a choice, get out there, refine your knowledge and move on! My first radios were Icoms, then a Yaesu, and then Elecraft: K1, K3, KX3 and KX2.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Richard.

      Like you, my SOTA setup is a KX2 and HT (FT-60R)–like you, I think I prefer having a separate HT. I’ve never used my IC-705 or FT-817ND for VHF on a summit–I find it easier to grab the HT.

  12. It’s hard to beat the KX2, but I have a soft spot for the FT818. Mine was my first QRP radio and I probably have made more contacts on it than all my other radios combined.

  13. RE: the FT897D – I had one. It was my main rig from 2007 to 2009 (I even used the radio to win the WI, and possibly the Central division, QRP class in the ARRL 160m Contest). I used it pedestrian mobile, on local walking trails in nearby local parks (complete with the optional Yaesu battery pack (which runs the radio at about 15 or 20 watts PEP), and a homebrew helically wound vertical [I wound it on a piece of PVC, and I still have it in one of my apartment’s closets]). It was a neat radio, but it did have it’s shortcomings:

    1. While it’s portable, it’s a bit on the chunky side for weight – it’s more of a “sort of manpack” radio (IIRC, the FT-897D is based upon a milradio design that Yaesu come up with for the Japanese SDF). I didn’t have a manpack frame to use with mine, so I put it in a backpack, leaving the backpack unzipped in one place to provide an opening for the the mic cable, and to jam/mount one end of my homebrew pedestrian mobile antenna, for walking purposes. It typically began to feel kind of heavy and uncomfortable for me after about an hour of use.

    2. No built-in antenna tuner, though Yaesu and LDG did make an accessory strap-on auto-tuner.

    3. The receiver performance – I found my ‘897D to have a receiver that didn’t always work the greatest in an RF noisy environment (there are a lot of high voltage power lines, and several AM broadcast stations within several miles of where I live, and the parks I used to go for a stroll in with my FT-897D). I’ve had worse, so it wasn’t the end of the world for me (after all, I had to deal with noise as a Novice, while using a Heathkit HW-16) – BUT I found the ‘897D’s VHF/UHF receiver performance to be a bit of a downer. I didn’t expect it to have as hot of a receiver as the FT-736R that was my main VHF/UHF weak signal rig in the 90s (I used to operate as high as 1296 MHz), but while the receiver was fine on 6m, it was so-so at best on 2m, and kind of (IMO) deaf on 432 MHz (which made it a bit of a disappointment to use in the ARRL June & Sept VHF, and the AUg. UHF contest).

    4. By far, my biggest complaint was Yaesu’s menu system. I like CW keyer speed to be relatively easy to access (due to the fact that I often have to QRS for other stations). It’s not necessary for it to be adjustable from a front panel knob, but you should only have to go down one menu level, and you should be able to keep the keyer speed function open, while operating the radio – both my IC-7300, and Discovery TX-500 have this capability. It’s been a while, but if IIRC, the FT-897D does not have this capability. You have to go through 2 levels of menu, and operating the radio while you are in the keyer speed menu is a pain. At the very least (from what I remember) you have to back out of the menu system if you want to tune around. I don’t remember if you could operate with the keyer speed menu open (on the frequency you were on when you opened the menu) – it’s been a while since I had my FT-897D.

    Still, all in-all, the FT-897D was a good, basic portable radio, it’s just that IMO, there’s better out there nowadays.

    73,
    Ellen – AF9J

    1. Edit to my previous post – my mistake, the Discovery TX-500 keyer speed menu option has to be closed out, before you can tune again, but if you leave the menu at the keyer speed spot, it’s a breeze to access via on press of the menu button.

      Ellen – AF9J

  14. I just got an X6100 a few months ago, specifically for QRP / portable operation and have done one POTA activation with it so far. It was also my whole station for Field Day.
    I have mostly been using it on 20 m with just two 17′ wires direct from the BNC / binding post adapter, but I was impressed with how it performed with a 17′ vertical Buddipole.
    I think it’s a good little radio overall, a great radio for its price point, and it gets my recommendation for the purposes Motters outlines. The ease of upgrading the software is a plus, too, in my opinion; kind of looking forward to the Open Source version whenever that happens.
    I think the limited battery capacity is the biggest issue with the 6100 … though I can also see both sides of that; because I love the light weight and compactness too. Using it with an external battery can allow use of the 10-watt “QRP gallon” option, so there’s another plus, overall.
    Full disclosure: I also own a KX-1, and two 817’s, which all have a place in my portable operations, and I also prefer to carry a separate HT like an Icom T90A or one of my “disposable” Baofengs.

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