Choice between a better Radio or a better Antenna
Unfortunately, it is equally true that having been swayed by the glamour of well-advertised jazzy-looking modern radio rigs, many of these people have made wrong choices. Only to have learned about their mistake the hard way after having spent a lot of hard-earned money that never really paid dividends as per their expectations. Ironically, even many of the extra-class licensees, in haste to conquer the world, had skipped doing due diligence or ignored sane advice from others who knew. They often ended up making reckless decisions and wrong choices.
The answers to the questions that we raised at the beginning are unambiguously clear and straightforward. Yet, at times, amongst a section of radio amateurs, there seems to be quite a fuzzy understanding of some of the important factors that could go a long way to either make or break the possibilities of establishing contacts in a radio communication environment. As a consequence, they usually laid more focus where it was not needed, and far less focus on things that matter more.
Let us examine the above-cited issues and try to put them in perspective.
To Focus on a better Radio rig or a better Antenna?
For anyone who is setting up a radio communication station, the most vital factor is the quality, capability, and performance of the Antenna System. Please note the term Antenna System. This system consists not only of the antenna but also the rig to antenna transmission line along with the interface arrangement between the transmission line and the antenna. All these together form the antenna system. A decent antenna with a poor transmission line or vice-a-versa will do no good. All the three aspects of the antenna system that I mentioned above are equally important. Any weak link in the chain will make the overall antenna system performance go for a toss.
Please remember that Any radio station is as good or as bad as the antenna it has. This is a view that has been held, confirmed, and validated by the innumerable veterans and experts of radio communication over a period of almost a century. It is almost a gospel truth.
Does it mean that the quality of the radio transceiver is insignificant? Absolutely NOT… A decent quality transceiver is very important but obsessing over the latest or the more expensive model of the rig available in the market is certainly least important.
A radio rig that is not broken or functionally not impaired or dysfunctional in any way is usually good enough. The rig need not be the latest model. Even a 10-20-year-old or an even older transceiver that might be secondhand but fully functional will do a far better job in conjunction with a good, well-planned, and well-deployed antenna system in comparison to the latest TXR model with all the bells and whistles and a thoughtlessly deployed mediocre antenna system.
Does it mean that modern high-end Transceivers are a waste of money?
Absolutely NOT!… However, it is important to understand that the unique and cutting edge features of these great transceivers would never be realized or translated to anything useful until and unless they are supported by a well-performing antenna system.
Well performing antenna system? What does it mean? Does it necessarily mean a large and expensive multi-element antenna with high gain? NO, it doesn’t… A well-performing antenna might even be a simple dipole as long as it is deployed with utmost care while taking into account an optimum location and height above clear ground. It also means that the antenna suffers from minimal structural losses, losses or distortion on account of the underlying ground and surrounding objects, etc. The presence of electric utility cables, water pipes, nearby buildings, shed, the rooftop of modern concrete buildings, embedded metal in the beams and columns of buildings, or other metallic structures, etc in the vicinity of the antenna (within its Near-Field region) can all contribute to adversely affecting the antenna system efficient and also distort the radiation pattern.
Ignoring the common-mode current on transmission lines due to improper termination and interface imbalance often results in limiting the performance threshold and antenna system capability. An improperly configured transmission line not only make the antenna system inefficient but also is the major cause of undue noise pick up. The antenna noise threshold often determines the limiting capabilities of the overall radio station.
Many station operators after having deployed a poor antenna try to naively search for better or more expensive transceivers in their misplaced effort to remedy the mess that they created. Such an approach rarely works. It is like first creating an unnecessary and largely avoidable problem due to either ignorance or carelessness and thereafter setting out on a spree to counter it by dubious means.
Please recognize the fact that the antenna system is a bi-directional port and is the source of whatever comes into the transceiver while receiving and also the output load for whatever goes out of the transceiver while transmitting. Unless this port is clean and efficient, nothing in the world would salvage the situation, not ever the best transceiver in the world.
It is pointless buying a Ferrari unless you have decent roads to drive on. It is pointless buying the greatest high-fidelity quadraphonic surround sound system unless you have an auditorium or a room with immaculate acoustics… Similarly, it is pointless buying the greatest radio in the world unless you have a well-deployed antenna system.
At the cost of being repetitive, let me state once again that a great antenna may not always be the largest or the highest gain antenna. It might even be a simple dipole but it has to be deployed properly at an optimum location. Not only that, it has to be interfaced properly with the transmission line at the antenna feed-point while taking into account the balance-unbalance factor as well as any possible impedance mismatch. The transmission line must by a reasonably low-loss type at the frequency of interest and finally, the common-mode current must be almost non-existant on the line.
Only when and if the above conditions of the antenna system are thoroughly met, one might begin to consider upgrading to a higher performance state-of-the-art transceiver. The additional finer performance capabilities that might be offered by a better transceiver may only be experienced when the antenna system is optimal. Or else, it would just a pipe dream and a waste of money.
A few facts to show that the Transceiver is not the deal-breaker
Let us understand and recognize a few real facts. Amateur radio has been in vogue for almost a century. However, since the 1980s and beyond, both analog and digital modes have been used extensively for radio communication across HF, VHF, UHF, and beyond using solid-state transceivers. There has been terrestrial radio, satellite, EME, etc all available and used by radio amateurs over the decades.
The radio operators of the 70s 80s, 90s, and so on, generally did not have the impressive DSP based SDR with fancy TFT displays and waterfall at their disposal. Yet they could comfortably work DX around the world on various modes. Some of the finest world records for communication under extremely difficult conditions were set by amateurs during that period. Many of them still stand and not been broken.
The question is, how did they do it without the great high-tech contemporary transceivers? The answer lies in what we said before. It is not the transceiver that is so important. It is the antenna system that matters. Within the constraints and limitations of their operating environment, they all put in lots of effort to deploy optimally performing antenna systems. This was the key to their success. Of course, they also trained themselves well and acquired the necessary skills.
The bottom line is that even today, a fully functional transceiver with performance figures available during the earlier decades is mostly good enough. It may surely be nice to have the latest features of modern transceivers at our disposal but those are not really necessary to establish effective communication.
The mantra is to focus more on optimizing the antenna system rather than obsessing on the latest rig.
What is the best spending option for setting up a radio station?
To me, the answer is crystal clear… Get a decent and fully functional transceiver even if it might an older model from a couple of earlier decades. Deploy the best possible antenna within budget and real-estate constraints. Most importantly, ensure the antenna is optimally deployed with an optimally configured transmission line. Finally, apply your skills, follow the propagation, and sit back and enjoy the fascinating world of endless radio communication.
For those who are getting started as well as those who might progressively be upgrading their stations, here are a few basic tips…
- Do not fall for the temptation of succumbing to the aggressive advertising and fancy rigs.
- Search for a decent time-tested rig with good reviews from fellow operators.
- Do not allocate most of your budget to opt for a high-end feature-loaded rig.
- Do due diligence and put in a lot of thought into the best antenna that you might be able to deploy for your station.
- Do not shortlist antennas based only on the published gain but focus on various other important parameters.
- A lighter and a lower gain antenna at a better height and clearance from nearby objects is far better than a higher gain antenna at a compromised location.
- If possible, try to fabricate and erect your own antenna rather than buying one. This way you will learn more about the antenna and might be in a better position to optimize it. You will also save a lot of money.
- Even if you have to buy an antenna, spend time in studying the pros and cons of the antenna configuration and its characteristics including its behavior and idiosyncracies under different deployment situations.
- Pay great attention to the transmission line to be used to feed the antenna. Make a proper choice after due diligence.
- Ensure that the antenna is matched to the transmission line optimally to ensure low inherent SWR across the required bandwidth.
- Except for some antennas that need open-wire lines (OWL) or low-loss slotted balanced feeder where an ATU might be mandatory, try to ensure that your coaxial-cable driven antenna features an inherently low SWR on the coax rather than compensating the problem with a shack-side ATU.
- Place special emphasis on minimizing the Common-Mode current on the transmission line. Failing to do so will leave you in a mess with unacceptable noise from various avoidable sources thus rendering your radio station practically worthless. Even the finest and the most expensive transceiver will not help.
- Use good quality common-mode current chokes on transmission lines (preferably made using ferrite toroids) when necessary but please do not fall for dubious chokes made by coiling a few turns of air-core coax coil near the antenna feed-point. These are almost ineffective and give only a false sense of well-being.
As a general rule of thumb, if you have 2000-3000 dollars at your disposal, then I would suggest that you spend no more than 500-600 dollars on the rig and spend the rest on the antenna system. For a higher available budget, use your discretion to have a proportionately higher allocation for the rig and antenna. Continue with this spending pattern until such time that you don’t have any further scope for improving the antenna system. Thereafter, start thinking about putting money into a more expensive and the latest state-of-the-art rig but not until you have reached a saturation point in antenna system optimization.