Top 3 Best Digital Ham Radios In 2024
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Searching for the best digital ham radio?
Choosing the right digital ham radio today requires a keen eye for detail and an understanding of the latest tech advancements.
In this guide, we’re cutting through the jargon to bring you straightforward, expert analysis of the top models on the market.
From the reliability of budget-friendly options to the sophistication of premium devices, we’ll explore key features that matter most to ham radio enthusiasts.
If you’re looking to make an informed decision for your next purchase, keep reading as we dissect what sets these radios apart in functionality, durability, and overall performance.
Our Top Picks
- 1. Yaesu FT5DR – Our Top Choice
- 2. ICOM ID-52A – Best Premium Digital Ham Radio
- 3. Baofeng DM-1701 – Best Budget Digital Ham Radio
Why Should You Trust Us?
At WhollyOutdoor, authenticity is our cornerstone. Founded by Paul Dudley, a ham radio enthusiast and avid outdoorsman, our reviews are grounded in real-life experience and hands-on testing.
We’re committed to honesty and objectivity, ensuring our recommendations for digital ham radios are reliable and practical. With our blend of personal passion and expert insights, you can trust our guidance to be both informative and genuinely useful.
How We Choose the Best Digital Ham Radios
In our quest to identify the best digital ham radios for 2024, we delve deep into several critical factors, ensuring our recommendations stand up to the needs and expectations of ham radio enthusiasts.
- Performance and Reliability: Our primary focus is on how effectively each radio transmits and receives signals. We test for clarity, range, and resistance to interference in various environments – urban clutter, remote wilderness, and everything in between. A radio’s ability to maintain a consistent, clear signal is paramount.
- User Experience: We understand that a radio’s usability is as important as its technical prowess. This includes evaluating the ease of navigating menus, programming channels, and customizing settings. We also consider the learning curve for beginners versus seasoned users.
- Feature Set: Here, we dive into what each radio offers beyond the basics. We’re looking at digital modes supported, connectivity options like Bluetooth or GPS, the number of channels, and any unique features that set the radio apart. We also examine the quality of displays, speaker output, and additional functionalities that enhance the overall ham radio experience.
- Durability and Build Quality: Durability is critical, especially for ham radios used in various outdoor settings. We test each unit’s robustness, weather resistance, and overall build quality. This includes assessing materials used, construction, and whether the radio can withstand drops, moisture, and dust.
- Battery Life: We measure how long each radio lasts under typical usage conditions. This involves testing battery life during continuous transmission, reception, and standby modes. We also note if the radio supports battery saving features and the availability of replaceable or higher-capacity batteries.
- Price vs. Value: We balance the cost against the overall features and performance. Our goal is to identify radios that represent the best investment, whether for budget-conscious beginners or enthusiasts looking for high-end features. We consider the long-term value, factoring in durability and potential for upgrades or accessories.
- Customer Feedback and Reviews: We sift through customer reviews for insights into long-term reliability, real-world performance, and customer service experiences. This helps us gauge how well radios live up to their promises over time and in diverse user scenarios.
- Compatibility with Accessories and Software: We check each radio’s compatibility with widely-used accessories and the ease of integrating with popular software for programming and updates. This includes looking at the availability and user-friendliness of proprietary and third-party software, as well as the support for accessories like antennas, headsets, and carrying cases.
By meticulously evaluating each of these factors, we ensure that our selection of the best digital ham radios is comprehensive, well-informed, and most importantly, trustworthy for our readers.
3 Best Digital Ham Radios Reviews
1. Yaesu FT5DR – Our Top Choice
As you look at the Yaesu FT5DR, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the lower model, the Yaesu FT3DR. Both radios have a similar design, features, and general functions. It’s often said that Yaesu developed the FT5DR because the global chip shortage made it difficult to source the parts for the FT3DR.
Thankfully, rather than throwing together a radio with what was available, Yaesu took the time to make improvements on the radio. Yaesu FT5DR has better voice clarity, works better with Bluetooth, and a relatively cleaner look.
It is slightly larger and bulkier than the FT3DR, but the 5DR has a cleaner profile. This is especially visible with the buttons on the side of the radios. The FT3DR has something of a bulge with the buttons, while the 5DR is sleeker. It’s a small change but it works very well for the aesthetics.
Differences aside, both these radios belong to the fusion lineup and share overlapping features. Related accessories, including the battery, are compatible between these models.
Speaking of the battery, while the 2200 mAh Li-ion battery looks sufficient, it’s a good idea to get another battery pack. The charging times can be painfully long and it’s usually better to swap batteries rather than waiting around for the pack to charge.
Though the battery takes its sweet time charging, it does a good job when it is in action. The battery can last a day even when transmitting at the maximum 5W output RF power. The 5W output is fairly standard for handheld ham radios like the FT5DR and this radio seems to handle it beautifully.
The received audio also appears better and louder due to the use of a powerful 1W speaker.
Yaesu FT5DR is a competent addition to the company’s fusion radio lineup. The dual-band ham radio can work with VHF and UHF bands, with the capability to listen to two frequencies simultaneously.
There are two independent receivers to work on these frequencies. Two LED indicators above the display present visual feedback for the working of the A Band and B Band.
A key feature of the FT5DR is its implementation of digital communication, where it’s worth comparing this radio to its close competitor, the Icom ID 52A.
Icom’s offering is slightly longer and bulkier than the FT5DR, though it maintains a similar overall form. A quick difference between the two is that the Yaesu ham radio has a touchscreen, while Icom 52 does not.
The bigger question in choosing between these ham radios is whether you want fusion or D-STAR.
Yaesu’s implementation of the digital amateur radio employs C4FM communication with APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). Icom uses D-STAR to accomplish the same.
This means both these ham radios transmit and receive data for information like GPS coordinates, texts, and images.
However, the APRS with Yaesu’s implementation generally works better than Icom’s D-STAR. Yaesu’s use of C4FM also provides excellent features like Automatic Mode Select (AMS), Digital Group ID (DG-ID), and Smart Navigation.
When using features like Smart Navigation, users can track their location or route and save it to a micro SD memory card. Similarly, you could use the micro SD card to store pictures you intend to send or receive.
A lot of data can go into the memory card. Yaesu FT5DR will also accept software updates through its micro SD card.
Since so many features find their place in this expensive package, we expect it to be strong and rugged. The FT5DR doesn’t disappoint on these points. The ham radio has an impressive build quality. It’s rated IPX7, which means it’s waterproof and can spend a few minutes submerged without being damaged.
All these features make it my choice for the best digital ham radio on the market right now!
- Voice quality is loud and clear.
- Uses the same battery and accessories as other models in Yaesu’s fusion series.
- Works with C4FM digital communication.
- Has IPX7 waterproofing.
- Display is clear and crisp.
- Larger and bulkier than previous fusion radios.
- Has a learning curve, even for people well-acquainted with the use of ham radios.
- Functionality: 9.5
- Reliability: 9
- Value for Money: 9
- Battery: 9
- Overall Rating: 9.5
2. ICOM ID-52A – Best Premium Digital Ham Radio
Icom ID-52A is the company’s flagship handheld transceiver. It plays that role with an imposing presence and great features to boot. And when I say imposing, I mean that this is amongst the biggest HTs on the market.
How one feels about that is entirely subjective. Some people find the larger size and heft to be a comfortable and good feel in the hands, while others find it needlessly clunky. In some part, the larger size is due to some iterative improvements ID-52A has received over the previous model, Icom ID-51.
The most notable visual changes here are the bigger screen and the louder speaker. The display is 2.3 inches and adds a nice visual touch to the device.
However, for a radio this expensive, the display falls short on some quality features. It’s not all that bright and thus not clearly visible under the sun. The contrast could have been better, and the black color on the display has something of a gray touch.
On the plus side, it shows information rather elegantly. Incidentally, this is also the first display on an HT that can handle a full-color waterfall.
Similarly, the improved 750 mW speaker is also very loud and offers clear audio. Icom ID-52A carries this great quality for received signals to the transmitted signals as well. The Tx and Rx quality on this transceiver are remarkable.
It can function as a dual-band transceiver, working on 2m and 70cm bands. For those who want something more to listen to, this radio will also receive broadcast FM and airband.
Since this is an Icom radio, the digital mode here is D-Star. It shifts from analog to digital rather effortlessly and you can also use analog and digital features simultaneously. The radio uses its built-in GPS to work with Icom’s repeater list, thus ensuring that users have an easy way to find and connect to repeaters wherever they’re located.
The HT can use Bluetooth to connect to a variety of accessories or to your smartphone through the RS-MS1A mobile app. The app expands the features and possibilities of the radio, while also making it easier to work with updates.
Other notable features include a sturdy build and casing with IPX7 protection rating (so it’s waterproof), good battery performance, compatibility with ID-51 accessories, and a nice user interface.
Overall, Icom ID-52A is a well-built and feature-rich handheld transceiver that’s easy to use, has great features, and shows remarkable performance with options like Bluetooth and GPS. The radio offers amazing Tx and Rx quality, and convenient functioning of analog and digital modes and all these make it my top choice for the best Premium Digital Ham Radio.
- Good build quality with IPX7 protection rating
- High-quality 750 mW speaker
- Larger display with waterfall
- Built-in GPS works seamlessly with repeater list
- Compatible with ID-51 accessories
- Easy working in analog and digital modes
- Multiple Tx power options (5, 2.5, 1, 0.5, and 0.1 W)
- No APRS
- Display performance could be better
- No USB Type-C charging
- Features: 9.5/10
- Ease of Use: 9/10
- Signal Quality (Tx/Rx): 9/10
- Build Quality: 9/10
- Audio Quality: 9.5/10
- Value for Money: 7.5/10
- Overall Rating: 9/10
3. Baofeng DM-1701 – Best Budget Digital Ham Radio
Baofeng DM-1701 has the most consistent performance and availability amongst Baofeng’s DMR offerings.
The company has made other forays into the DMR segment, with the Baofeng UV-5R themed DM-5R, but that was unsuccessful. The newer iteration to this line, Baofeng RD-5R has input from Radioddity as well and looks promising. However, there are still a few kinks to work out there.
All that brings us back to the Baofeng DM-1701, which has been fairly reliable and stable.
If you look at the TFT color display, the menus, and the features, Baofeng DM-1701 seems very similar to the TYT MD-UV380. The Baofeng radio has a significantly larger form factor and a different design.
Besides, even though there are similarities between the menus and the programming software for both radios, they don’t appear to be cross-compatible. For example, you wouldn’t be able to use a codeplug from the MD-UV380 and move it seamlessly to the Baofeng DM-1701.
The similarity of interfaces probably comes down to the fact that the DM-1701 is sold by Radioddity, which also maintains its software. Radioddity was also involved with the MD-UV380.
One of the effects of this overly-complicated family tree is that the Baofeng DM-1701 is compatible with Open GD77. If you prefer this approach to DMR, the 1701 is a good companion.
Even though it’s squarely in the budget DMR category, the radio has quite a few features. It’s quick and easy to program the radio through the included programming cable. Usually, it is better to use a programming cable since the radio has room for 3,000 channels, 10,000 digital talk groups and 120,000 contacts.
A bigger contact memory is desirable to have the ever-growing contact list for DMR, but the available option is good enough and can handle the popular options. Users can also add to the list manually, or even program the radio directly from the panel.
It allows manual programming and is full panel programmable. One downside of computer programming is that the software is only available for Windows; Mac and Linux aren’t supported.
As a DMR device, it is compatible with Tier I and Tier II making it very capable at communication. It switches between analog and digital modes easily. When in conventional analog mode, the radio works on the 2m and 70cm bands (136-174 MHz and 400-470 MHz).
Its RF output is at 1W, 2W, and 5W. That’s good enough and allows a good range of communication, assuming there’s a DMR repeater within range. Power comes from a 2200 mAh Li-ion battery, which is more than sufficient to allow a decent use time for the radio.
Overall, Baofeng DM-1701 is a decent DMR radio, with good features and an attractive price tag.
- Attractive pricing
- Powerful 2200 mAh lithium battery
- Easy switching from analog to digital modes
- RF output at 1, 2, and 5W
- Decent instruction manual
- Clear Tx and Rx.
- Limited space for contacts
- Doesn’t work well with other codeplugs like those from TYT.
- Value for Money: 9/10
- Audio Clarity: 8/10
- Battery and Charging: 8/10
- Programming: 8/10
- Overall Rating: 8.25/10
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- What makes a digital ham radio different from an analog one? Digital ham radios use digital technology for transmission, offering clearer audio quality, enhanced signal stability, and more efficient use of bandwidth compared to analog radios.
- Is a license required to operate a digital ham radio? Yes, similar to analog radios, operating a digital ham radio requires an amateur radio license issued by your country’s communications authority.
- Can digital ham radios communicate with analog radios? Many digital ham radios have dual-mode capabilities, allowing them to communicate with both digital and analog radios.
- What should I look for in terms of battery life? Aim for a radio with a battery life that can support your typical usage duration, ideally with features like battery saving modes and easy battery replacement options.
- Are there specific features useful for emergency communication? Features like GPS, weather alerts, and the ability to switch between digital and analog modes are valuable for emergency communication.
- How important is the radio’s display? A clear, readable display is crucial for ease of use, especially in varying light conditions. Touchscreen displays offer added convenience.
- What kind of range can I expect from a digital ham radio? Range varies based on factors like power output, antenna type, and environmental conditions, but digital radios generally offer better range and signal penetration compared to analog ones.
- How do firmware updates impact a digital ham radio? Firmware updates can significantly enhance the radio’s functionality, fix bugs, and add new features, making it important to choose a radio with regular software support.
- What is the significance of GPS in a digital ham radio? GPS in digital radios aids in precise location tracking, which is beneficial for mapping, emergency situations, and using repeaters effectively.
- Should I consider the radio’s compatibility with accessories? Yes, ensure the radio is compatible with a range of accessories like external microphones, antennas, and protective cases for greater versatility and improved performance.