So let’s keep this simple.
Get on the air with the rig you’ve got.
Any rig will work. Some rigs will work better than others. I’ve got a Tuna Tin 330 milliwatt xmitter that works and I’ve got the QSL to prove it 🙂
Any rig is better than no rig. I once competed in the ARRL’s Field Day using a Ten Tec R40/20 into an end-feed wire. It worked just fine.
If you’re planning on buying a contest-quality rig you’ve got some decisions to make. If you can buy a multi-band rig that works CW/SSB/AM/FM and digital modes for $900 or so why would you even consider a rig that costs 10 times more?
Let’s put it this way: Most transmitters are roughly the same. The extra money goes into the receiver. Having said that, some new rigs (especially the DSR equipment) is proving to be contest-quality at a fraction of what we used to think we had to pay to be competitive.
So what makes a contest rig competitive? For the most part it’s the ability of the rig to separate one signal from another especially if the target signal is S-2 and the neighbouring signal is 40 db/S9 (which happens here sometimes when VA3EC fires up 360 meters north of me).
One way to help some older rigs to remain competitive comes in the form of crystal filters for CW, digital and SSB. Nothing makes CW easier than a 300 or 500 Hz filter.
It’s also the ability of the rig to perform flawlessly for 48 hours under the stresses of competition. Some rigs are built better than others and will stand more abuse.
Some rigs are also easier to listen to for two days steady than others. A lot of this is personal preference.
When it comes to competitions you’ll want to be using communications quality headphones. The Bose I spoke of are okay but their forte is noise cancelling. Heil headphones makes really excellent units with mini boom mics built right in.
I switch headphones often during contests to keep changing the pressure points. This helps keep me in the chair.
If you’re operating at home in a quiet location you can run VOX. If you’ve got kids or your running two or more transmitters in the same room you’ll have to go to a foot switch to trigger the transmitter. Foot switches are cumbersome and tend to wander away from where you want them but when it comes to controlling the transmitter, they’re essential.
If you’re ready for a CW contest you absolutely will love to have a CW memory keyer. The memories can be filled up with the contest report and often will do sequential numbers and other helpful add-ons.
If you’re doing an SSB contest a voice keyer can be a blessing. When running QRP on sideband I run at a great disadvantage to anyone running 100 or 1,000 watts. A voice keyer with just my call in it can save my voice.
In contests that don’t require a sequential number or any other unique information I can setup the voice keyer so I never actually say anything all weekend long. This is a very popular accessory in our home during voice contests especially late a at night.
Okay time for some straight talk. Which rig would I buy?
In used equipment I’d get an Icom Pro or better like a Pro 2. In Yaseu I’d look for a Mk V FT-1000 MP. I’s also consider an Elecraft K2. Really older rigs include ICOM 765s or Kenwood TS-850s.
Now $1,000 or so entry rigs can be used in contests but forget the preamps in the receivers and run these rigs with as much attenuation as you can while still hearing the stations you want to work. Cheaper rigs are prone to front-end overload which creates all kinds of crap and spurious signals. Adding amplification is an exercise in frustration.
Now if I could buy any rig I’d used Sherwood Engineering’s receiver test data page as a place to start. These tests are all about contesting quality.
If it were me I’d buy the $1,000 SDR Elecraft KX3 radio. Yes it’s only a QRP rig but Elecraft is building a 100-watt PA for it. This is an amazing radio and an astonishing price.
Next up I’d get the K3 but that’s going to cost between $3K and almost $5K depending on how much you tart it up. (And with the possibility of adding an entirely separate receiver, the K3 is an extremely desirable radio when it comes to full-out contesting.)
Next up when money is considered is the Kenwood TS-590s. At $1800 this is a crazy good radio at an amazing price. Receive audio from Kenwood has always been top notch. At much the same price the diminutive Ten-Tec Eagle scores well.
I have no experience with the Ten Tec Orion II but some guys won’t use anything else. Part of the reason for this is they are American made.
Now you’ll notice I also left out the $6K+ Yaesu FTdx=5000D and even my beloved FlexRadio 5000A and Flex-3000. I think the Yaesu is yesterday’s rig. My opinion only and we’re getting rigs with amazing characteristics at downright bargain basement prices and this trend will continue.
I run the Flex 1500 (which scores really high for a $600 rig on Sherwoods page) but these Flex rigs aren’t the best for newcomers as they are tough to setup if you don’t have some experience as a ham and know what to expect.
Once you get them setup they’re amazing. The receiver in my Flex 1500 is the best receiver I’ve ever used period. I can work guys on the Flex that I’m certain I couldn’t work using a conventional contest-quality rig.
The Flexradios don’t have the best ergonomics when it comes to contesting and they require a computer to work however having said that, I believe the new Flex 6500 (at $5K) is likely the future of radio communications as we know it and may well prove to be a complete game changer.
Now having said all that this morning (Saturday) I’m listening with a vintage mint Drake 2B receiver on a Par 40-20 end-feed wire which is hearing things my main rig on the beam isn’t hearing especially on 20 meters where I’m gearing up for the ARCI QRP Fall contest.
I’m planning on running 1 watt into wire antennas only but we’ll see how the day progresses 🙂