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Is Ham Gear Too Expensive? Or, Are Some Hams' Expectations Unrealistic?

Discussion in 'Ham Radio Discussions' started by N2EY, Sep 29, 2017.

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  1. K0RGR

    K0RGR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Yes, they are pricey, but a lot of those consumer electronics are too. Now, we have kilodollar cellphones in the pipe, and they are going to be extremely popular around the world, even in starving countries. When an iPhone retails for $1,000 I think any ham rig in that price class is a miracle! It's a much more complex piece of gear with far more materials costs, and it's not mass produced on the scale of the cellphones.

    One huge difference between the 50's and 60's and now is that in those days, we built a lot of our gear. Most hams had commercial receivers, but homebrew transmitters were pretty common. The coming of SSB transceivers accelerated the trend toward buying the main radio, and sold state even more so. It became nearly impossible to equal the performance and features of the commercial rigs with homebrew stuff, though many people tried and sometimes succeeded. Military surplus was abundant and was an easier road to getting a decent piece of gear on the air, too. CW was still king for many people, requiring relatively simple transmitters.

    As commercial gear goes, the modern offerings are a major bargain compared to those of yesteryear. As SDR technology continues to advance, the difference will become more obvious.
    W7JZE likes this.
  2. WA9SVD

    WA9SVD Ham Member QRZ Page

    Unless covered by "other" insurance, home owner's (or renter's) insurance usually covers Amateur equipment as "consumer" electronics, and as you say, usually depreciate to zero value in three to five years. Most of us hardly get used to the equipment in that time! That is why I use ARRL insurance. It MAY be pricey, but if you realistically list a replacement cost, they will reimburse you for that value, even if the original equipment is unobtainable. (Obviously, a Kenwood TS-790A is obsolete, but an Icom 9100 is available as the nearest equivalent, so should be insured at that level, give or take a few dollars.) Original price is irrelevant; unless you want to take the loss (sometimes quite great) you HAVE to list (and insure) your equipment at current prices.
    In real time, a HeathKit mobile rig I got (and insured) for under $300 was covered, but for $300. The replacement was over $800 at the time, and I had to make up the $500+ difference. The difference in insurance, even over several years, would have been MUCH, much less.

    YMMV, but get the details, IN WRITING from your insurance agent. Sad to say, but they are always looking for "loopholes" in a policy to get out of a claim.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2017
  3. N2EY

    N2EY Ham Member QRZ Page

    Exactly. Economics of scale.

    There were also lots of kits, which saved money because the builder provided the assembly labor. Also used gear.

    However, by the mid-1950s, homebrewing with all new parts was a losing game, economically. A ham could not buy new parts for most projects for what an equivalent kit rig sold for. Look up parts prices in old Allied catalogs (they're online!) and you'll see that those projects in old magazines and books were NOT inexpensive if built with all-new parts.

    Where money could be saved by homebrewing was when parts could be had for less than new prices. Surplus was one source, old TV sets and AM radios another. There were (and are) discount sellers of parts too. And of course hamfests.

    Surplus was a mixed bag. Surplus transmitters could be TVI generators and have less-than-perfect signal quality. Manuals and schematics were often expensive or unavailable. Adding a power supply and converting them could be expensive. Surplus receivers could be OK, but few went above 18 MHz, and they generally needed some serious mods to be half-decent. Most non-aircraft surplus was huge and incredibly heavy. None of it did SSB, and as time went on, many considered WW2 surplus to be "obsolete old stuff" because it was more than 10 years old.

    I suspect that more than a few hams who had been in WW2 wanted nothing to do with surplus.

    There was also the question of expectations - what hams expected from their rigs.

    IMHO, HF SSB transceivers, and matched-pair separates, caused a near-revolution in US amateur radio starting about 1959. They made it possible for SSB to displace AM as the #1 voice mode in US amateur radio, because many SSB transceivers cost less than an equivalent AM transmitter-receiver combo. (Compare a Heathkit SB-101 to a TX-1/RX-1 combo of 5 years earlier). Tabletop grounded-grid linears with silicon-diode power supplies made high power voice operation much more accessible to many hams.

    There was also the tendency to not accumulate stuff, and to focus on one part of Amateur Radio. Most hams I knew back-when had just one setup, which they improved when possible, working their way up the ladder. A $100 receiver would be replaced by a $200 receiver, and the $100 receiver sold off. The $200 receiver would be replaced by a $300 receiver.....etc. Same for the transmitter and other parts of the station. Some hams I knew were really good at finding used gear at good prices, using it for a while (often fixing minor issues in the process), saving up, and then selling it for about what they bought it for to buy something better. The incremental cost of ownership was often small (buy a used receiver for $150, use it for a year, sell it for $140 - cost you less than $1 a month to own it. Meanwhile, save $9 a month and use the $140 from the sale and the $108 saved to buy a $250 receiver.)

    It is still very practical to homebrew - IF someone is willing to learn the technology and invest the time to develop the skills.

    In many ways.

    A short time ago, there was a thread here about a one-band QRP CW transceiver kit for about $50. The performance looked impressive. The group making them sold hundreds in a short time, and is putting together a second batch.

    73 de jim, N2EY
    W7JZE likes this.
  4. KK5JY

    KK5JY Ham Member QRZ Page

    As with many things, there are examples of both. But for the everyday Joe Ham, it's really neither one.

    Most people have to live on a budget. Whether they "have a budget" or not, their resources are limited. I follow financial news fairly closely, and the affordability of life in general (the ratio between average/median/typical income and cost of living) continues to erode. There are plenty of people who are well ahead of the curve, and many of them post here. But there are also plenty of people behind the curve, and they now make up the majority of Americans.

    Your assertion about the value-to-cost ratio of ham gear is absolutely true. (Most) ham gear today is better than ever and the cost-per-feature is quite low. However, if the cost of a radio hobby exceeds the disposable income margin of any specific individual, that individual cannot afford ham radio at that level. That's the bottom line.

    Do you really need a K3 piled high with roofing filters and all the trimmings to do ham radio? No, of course not. But in most city situations, I wouldn't try to do ham radio with a transceiver that didn't have those features, because fighting around the noise becomes a real chore after a while, making "radio time" less of a hobby, and more like working for "the man," in its enjoyability.

    Yes, ham radio is more affordable than ever. Absolutely. But life is less affordable than we have seen for many decades, if you count all the things that are necessary for life in a modern society. So no matter how affordable a hobby is, if the income-to-cost-of-living ratio is also lower than ever, having ham gear that is "more affordable than ever" still doesn't make it "affordable," particularly to people who are on the working end of the income scales.

    After all, a G5 or a 100' yacht can be considered affordable, if you are high enough on the income scale. If you are not, the fact that it is "more affordable than ever" is meaningless, even if it is true.

    (People will queue up behind me to say that anybody can afford ham radio because they can afford $500 or $1000 for a smartphone. But that statement alone ignores the context, for a couple of reasons.

    First, people at the extreme low end of the income scale have their phones subsidized by the federal government. If you doubt this, go to YouTube, and search for "Obama Phone." That's not a political statement -- it's simply what many of the recipients call them.

    Second, most people are expected to have a smartphone, and their boss/spouse/kids/etc. place expectations on their availability via various modes of communication. The days of being able to skate by with a $10 phone that can do calls and text but no more (the option I personally have) are long gone for most people who actually interact with society (which I mostly don't). It may not be critical for life, but it's critical for maintenance of necessary relationships with people who have expectations, and those people are in turn necessary for one's life. And so if the choice is "ham radio" or "smartphone to talk to the fam/friends/bosses", most reasonable people, if faced with that choice, are going to choose the latter.)
    WA7ANT, W7JZE, AC8UN and 3 others like this.
  5. KB4MNG

    KB4MNG Ham Member QRZ Page

    Far as hobbies go, Ham Radio is cheap. You can have about $700 and buy used stuff and have a very solid station that will last you decades if you are lucky enough not to have equipment failure. One could have built a hw 101 in the 70s and still use it today and have a great radio experience.

    I talked to a guy in AZ that bought the last kenwood twins, new, on closeout in the mid 70s. He uses them on a daily basis and that is all he had ever bought.

    I guess there is cheaper hobbies, maybe bird watching with cheap binoculars.
    W7JZE, K1OIK and W4IOA like this.
  6. N2EY

    N2EY Ham Member QRZ Page

    Perhaps. All depends on where people live and what they do.

    The way I see it, one of the biggest changes in the last several decades is that necessities (basic food, clothing, housing, transportation, education, health care, utilities) have become more expensive and more numerous, while luxuries have become less expensive. Also, the expectations have risen - air travel used to be a luxury for most people, as were things like dishwashers, color TVs, etc. The same is true for what many hams seem to expect for amateur radio - high power, state-of-the-art, all modes, all bands, computer in the shack, etc.

    But.....what are "most city situations"? I don't have a K3 and I do pretty well......

    That part about "less of a hobby and more like working" indicates an expectation that it be easy. Lemme tellya about some of the gear I've had....

    That was also true in the past.

    But what I was getting at in the OP was the attitudes some seem to have, expecting much lower prices on ham gear today, without any connection to the actual production costs, market volume, etc.

    A cellphone is as necessary today as a landline phone was some decades ago. In fact many have given up their landlines because they never use them. And....a smartphone doesn't have to cost $500-1000 - just don't demand the latest fanciest one.

    There's another factor.......

    In the past, hams made up a much smaller percentage of the US population than today.

    The following numbers have been posted by W5ESE on and elsewhere:
    Year Population #Hams Hams as % of US Population
    1913 97,225,000 2,000 0.002%
    1914 99,111,000 5,000 0.005%
    1916 101,961,000 6,000 0.006%
    1921 108,538,000 10,809 0.010%
    1922 110,049,000 14,179 0.013%
    1930 123,202,624 19,000 0.015%
    1940 132,164,569 56,000 0.042%
    1950 151,325,798 87,000 0.057%
    1960 179,323,175 230,000 0.128%
    1970 203,211,926 263,918 0.130%
    1980 226,545,805 393,353 0.174%
    1990 248,709,873 502,677 0.202%
    1997 267,783,607 678,733 0.253%
    2000 281,421,906 682,240 0.242%
    2005 296,410,404 662,600 0.224%
    2006 299,291,772 657,814 0.220%
    2008 303,000,000 658,648 0.217%
    2010 310,425,814 694,313 0.224%
    2017 325,985,607 745,069 0.226%

    The 2017 figures are from the US population clock and the ARRL license count numbers. Even in the supposedly good times of the 1950s-60s, hams were a much smaller part of the US population than today.

  7. KK5JY

    KK5JY Ham Member QRZ Page

    My mistake. I was just commenting on what you actually wrote. ;)
  8. N2EY

    N2EY Ham Member QRZ Page

    Apologies if I wasn't clear.
  9. W2AI

    W2AI XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    The latter statement is true, Jim. More than some amateurs have completely unrealistic expectations on the cost of radio gear. And many newcomers to the hobby have seem to forgotten the basic tenet of ALL radio communications: That is ANTENNA is everything in transmission and reception of a Radio Frequency Signal--not the radio itself!
  10. W2AI

    W2AI XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    I have the same policy. Don't buy used and never sell my equipment. I, too, would rather it sit unused or to give it away to a worthy recipient.
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