1. Cost: Hobbies can get as expensive as we let them. Shortwave radio listening is not as popular in the United States as it is in many other parts of the world. In all honesty, at times the prices of shortwave receiver sets in the United States can seem a little steep for what you are actually buying. This might be due at least in part to the fact that a good portion of amateur and shortwave radio dealers in the United States tend to rely on government purchases for revenue. Even so, choosing a good shortwave receiver to be your primary workhorse needn’t break the bank. Although there is no shortage of expensive radio gear, there are currently a few quality portable shortwave radios available to residents of the United States for affordable prices. Fortunately, at this point in history people living inside the United States are not required to pay a receiver set license fee for shortwave radios as citizens residing elsewhere such as Europe might have to in order to fund public broadcasting. Today the prices of new shortwave radios in the United States range anywhere from around $40 or so for compact handheld receivers to upwards of several thousand dollars for advanced monitoring devices.
Finding the right shortwave receiver for your needs and budget first requires defining what you hope to be able to hear with your radio and how much that you are willing or able to spend. Prices of medium sized portable shortwave radios at present in the United States range anywhere from just over $100 to around $500. Many of these middle of the road shortwave receivers tend to offer a good variety of features and functionality along with a price tag that is bearable for most who are serious about putting their radios to work. Something to consider when budgeting for a shortwave radio is that, while additional equipment is not necessarily a requirement for one to be able to log shortwave broadcasts, having a decent external antenna can make all of the difference in the world for reception. Crafting homebrewed antennas is part of the fun for shortwave radio hobbyists. Provided that you are willing to use your head and do a little soldering yourself, the price of such projects can be determined by the cost of materials or plans. Commercially available antennas come in many different forms and configurations. For less than $100 in today’s prices a tuned dipole or compact active antenna can be attained.
2. Quality: There are many different shortwave receivers on the market. Not all of them were built to last and, in some extreme cases, even work properly right off the shelf. Avoiding being stuck with a lemon by making the effort to do some homework before making a purchase can greatly increase your chances of finding shortwave radio listening to be a rewarding hobby from the start. As most salespeople would agree, it is generally accepted that you get what you pay for. This is quite often the case but is not always true. The quality of a shortwave radio is ultimately dependent on the manufacturer and it stands to reason that there are many business models in existence that attempt to produce maximum financial gain from minimum input.
Talking to other shortwave hobbyists or doing some detective work on your own are good ways to learn about the pros and cons of different shortwave radio models, their reliability, as well as personal experiences with shortwave equipment dealers. Participating in radio related internet forum discussions or going to radio club meetings can be a way to educate yourself. Reviews can be a helpful way to become familiar with many of the available features of various shortwave radio models as well as the quirks or undesirable aspects of particular radio sets. However, it is important to understand that some reviewers might give an opinion regarding a product which is biased because of their own interest in somehow making a profit from your purchase. Therefore, taking in more than one or two reviews as well as talking to more experienced shortwave hobbyists is highly recommended as a means to gauge the quality of a particular shortwave radio set, manufacturer or distributor.
3. Functionality: Aside from the ability for a particular radio to connect to and utilize various different external antennas, perhaps the most important defining aspect of a shortwave radio’s capacity is limited by the frequencies which it can receive. When selecting a shortwave radio it is a good idea to make sure that it is capable of receiving in the different modes where transmissions that you would like to monitor occur. The term “shortwave” has a broad scope and is generally used to refer to high frequency (HF) communications consisting of multiple “bands”, or portions of the radio spectrum. Most commercially available shortwave radios provide access to the frequencies where large commercial shortwave stations transmit public broadcasts. However, some radio monitoring hobbyists like to log aircraft, marine activity, or utilities such as beacons and may require special receivers which include frequency coverage which permits doing so. It is important to note that the definition of shortwave bands can vary and not all shortwave receivers cover the entire HF radio spectrum. Some shortwave radios include coverage of bands where ham radio transmissions occur and many receivers include air traffic bands which are considered to be very high frequency (VHF). Due to the popularity of medium wave (MW) AM and FM radio stations, access to the commonly used bands may be included in the coverage of shortwave receivers.
Most of the real optional bells and whistles incorporated into modern shortwave radios are aimed at tuning methods. A lot of the specialized options related to shortwave tuning deal with being able to pull out or eliminate specific signals. For some time now shortwave radios which utilize digital features have included options of tuning in varying steps such as 1, 9, or 10 kHz. For the most part it is a matter of personal preference whether your shortwave radio has a keypad for digital entry, a dial for tuning, or both. Some high end shortwave receivers may even feature a remote control with both a keypad and a dial. There are radios which offer phase locked loop (PLL) circuitry and others that incorporate digital signal processing (DSP) into tuning in order to improve reception. One feature considered valuable to listeners of shortwave radios who seek out more than just the large commercial or national broadcasters is single sideband (SSB) capability. SSB signals are an efficient way to transmit and receive and are often utilized by smaller broadcast stations. Provided that the frequencies are available, a shortwave radio which features SSB functionality may be used to listen to long distance transmissions from ham radio operators and smaller independent broadcasters, as well as the occasional pirate operator.
Other aspects of functionality worthy of consideration when choosing a shortwave receiver include the type of display, methods of tuning, and ability to store preset frequencies by memory. Most shortwave radios above the very low cost handheld models tend to have a digital display these days. Display may feature a light or offer a utilitarian menu which enables access to the radio’s features.It is not vital to understand the ins and outs all of the additional features available in shortwave radios to find a basic set which is suitable the needs of most beginner hobbyists. By first gaining an understanding what you would like to listen to and then making sure that you will not be limited by your choice of equipment you should be able to ensure that you are satisfied with your purchase.
4. Size: Commonly available shortwave radios for personal use come in sizes ranging from pocket or handheld models to tabletop sets. Handheld shortwave radios can be as small as the size of a wallet which enables portability with ease. Depending on the model, pocket sided to medium sized shortwave receivers are for the most part very well suited for use in a wide range of places. Medium sized shortwave radios can be taken along when traveling as they are easy to pack in luggage and the built in antennas are often sufficient for acceptable reception of transmissions by large international and domestic broadcasters. Medium sized receivers also make for good side table companions in bedrooms and many of them even tend to come with built in alarm clock features.
Larger tabletop shortwave radio sets are typically for stationary use and, although they are probably not the best suited place to set your cup of coffee on, they can be big enough that they can easily collect stacked clutter on their flat surface areas. Despite having adopted the old ham radio terminology of “boat anchor” as a nickname due to their larger size and heft, many modern tabletop shortwave receivers offer all kinds of additional functions and features as well as improved ergonomics when compared to more compact radios. The size of a shortwave radio can affect its functionality due to the omission or inclusion of basic characteristics such as the presence of a built in antenna, external antenna connectibility, or features including frequency coverage. Although there may be a few exceptions, larger tabletop shortwave radios do not typically have built in antennas and are intended for use in environments where listeners have the space required to install a longwire or dipole antenna of some sort or another. Active antennas do make it possible for sophisticated tabletop sets to be utilized in smaller settings and provide an alternative space saving solution but in some cases they can be costly and might not be considered ideal. Many smaller shortwave radios do not have connectors which permit them to be readily interfaced with external antennas requiring plug in type jacks. However, many have used the argument that giving up a few options in a small receiver is a small sacrifice for being able to carry broadcast voices from around the world in the palm of your hand.
5. New or used?: Lets face it, who wouldn’t like to buy a new shortwave radio set if given the choice? However, as the current economic climate might be trying to teach some of us, sometimes being frugal and bargain hunting can serve to lead to an improved quality of life. Even so, from time to time seeking deals that are too good too be true can result in unnecessary hassles when poor quality or irreparable faulty radios are passed on. Some people collect radios as if they were baseball cards. Occasionally extreme radiophiles and avid collectors give in to pleas from family members to make space around the house and cash in on their excesses. Eventually we all pass away and if relatives have no use for the equipment we have collected it ends up in an estate sale. Many avid radio collectors and hobbyist shortwave listeners simply like to wheel and deal. There are plenty of places to find used shortwave radios including internet forums, auctions, established shortwave radio dealers and swap meets such as hamfests.
When considering whether to buy a new or used shortwave radio, the type of warranty offered by the manufacturer or dealer may either add some comfort to the deal or, if non-existent, may increase the amount of risk you are taking. Radio repair shops do exist and they are usually found in conjunction with established dealers or manufacturers, although repair can be costly and, in some cases its availability is dependent on the make of equipment. For many years we have been living in a society that has fostered and encouraged built in obsolescence. In some cases, radio repair is simply not cost effective. Buying a new radio can and should keep you out of repair shops for at least long enough to get settled into shortwave radio listening as a hobby. Taking good care of your equipment and making good choices when purchasing it can help to prolong and ensure that the lifespan of your shortwave radio well exceeds the time it takes to open the box it was shipped in.