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Railfan Technology > My 2020 radio synopsis

Date: 06/28/20 16:46
My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: WW

I've been posting on radio technology for railfanning on TO for over a decade now.  Some of my original advice still holds, but some has been "obsoleted" by changes in technology.  Since many questions continue to come up, here is my updated synopsis and recommendations:

Amateur radios.  I no longer recommend any of them for railfanning, with one exception.  Aside from that one exception--the Kenwood TM-281A mobile--almost none of the common brand amateur radios are fully true narrow-band analog radios.  Like most of the commercial radio bands, railroad radio has been fully narrow-band in the US since 2013.  So, wide-band radios have now been obsolete for 7 years plus.  Using a wide-band radio for railfanning today is somewhat akin to driving a 1949 Ford on today's highway system.  You can do it, but the performance won't be great and there is some stuff that it just won't do that current generation equipment can.  Many current model amateur radios have a wide/narrow setting available, but, in many cases, that ONLY affects the transmit side of the radio, and, with few exceptions (the TM-281A being one), amateur radios will not tune the splinter channels created by narrow-banding.

Scanners.  With a few exceptions, most scanners are junk.  The "fail" of most scanners is poor selectivity--the ability to reject unwanted signals--and that causes big problems for being able to hear much other than interference if one is in an environment with a lot of spurious radio signals--and that is just about everywhere these days.  Buying a super-expensive digital-capable scanner often does NOT mean that the radio will have better selectivity in the railroad bands.  Some of the worst epic fails that I've seen in railroad radio reception have been in expensive digital scanners.  One of the better scanners for railroad monitoring is the Uniden Bearcat BC-125AT portable, and it's relatively cheap.  It has decent sensitivity and better than average selectivity for a scanner.  It is also fully narrow-band analog capable--which is now why it is on my recommended list and amateur radios are gone from my recommended list (note that the BC-125AT is not, however, a digital-capable radio).

Commercial radios.  I have two families of commercial radios that I recommend and that's it--more on those momentarily.  Many railfans have now embraced buying older used commercial radio equipment because it's getting fairly cheap and can have much better performance than amateur or scanner radios.  They can also be fraught with pitfalls.  Here are some:  Some of the older commercial radios are so cheap on the used market because they are NOT narrow-band capable.  Oftentimes, only one letter or numeral in the model no. will differentiate between an non-narrow band and narrow-band capable radio.  A non-narrow band capable commercial radio has little more practicality for railfanning than a non-narrow band amateur radio.  Also, nearly all commercial radios must be PC-programmed.  That's problematic because a lot of the older radios lack the number of memory channels (around 100) to be able to program all 97 of the original AAR railroad channels.  Worse yet, many of the older radios had DOS-based programming software that will not run on post-Windows 7 or XP platforms--some will run but can't program a radio through a USB/Serial adapter.  That's another reason that many older used commercial radios are so cheap on the market.  So, my advice is that, unless you are experienced with two-way radios and know pretty much what you're looking at, avoid buying older model commercial radios.

So, what do I recommend in commercial radios?  Not surprisingly, I recommend two families of radios that I've posted extensively about previously--these radios, also not surprisingly, are widely used by the railroads themselves and perform very well for them.  Here they are:

Kenwood NX-200/NX-210 Portables, and NX-700 mobile radios.
Icom IC-F3161D/IC-F3261D Portables and IC-F5061D mobile radios.

These radios do it all--plenty of channel space for ALL AAR channels in the VHF band; NXDN digital capability (hint: that is what the "D" in the Icom radios designates); excellent sensitivity, selectivity, and audio performance; and PC programming software and cables (not cheap) that is Windows 7/8/10 compatible.  There are newer models of Kenwood and Icom digital radios that have even greater capabilities than these, but none of those capabilities really add to the utility of these radios for railfanning. Therein lies some "newer" good news--a lot of NXDN radio users are buying those more capable radios, so a fair number of the NXDN radios that I've listed here are now coming onto the used market at pretty decent prices. 

For reference, here are a few comments about the various brands of commercial radios with which I have some experience:

Alinco--an also-ran in the commercial market.  Only mediocre quality over all. (No VHF NXDN models available).

Vertex (Yaesu)--fairly decent quality (no NXDN models)

Relm--mediocre quality (no NXDN models)

BK Radio--fairly good quality, a couple of field-programmable models (really obtuse to program in the field, however); behind the game in technology. (no NXDN models)

Motorola--their "good" models are excellent quality, durable radios; some of their models these days are "cheaped out" imports. Programming software can be expensive (if even publicly available), and obtuse.  Motorola does not have NXDN capability, so most railroads have ceased buying them.

Icom--generally very good quality radios.  Programming software and cables widely available.  Models listed above in common use by railroads.  (NXDN-capable models--see above--available).

Kenwood--probably the flagship brand in overall radio quality today.  Kenwood radios in wide railroad use.  Programming software is pricier and harder to find than Icom, but is available.  Kenwood radios are generally pricier than comparable Icom radios and the Kenwood dealer network is more "territorial"--that is, Kenwood dealers are discouraged from selling outside their regional area. (NXDN-capable models--see above--are available.)

Chinese commercial radios.  None now on my recommended list.  Low-priced, but quality and performance can be spotty--even within a certain model.  Long-term sales and support may be lacking.  (No NXDN models)

Maybe this post will simplify things a bit for railfan radio users.  I could go on about antennas, programming and other issues, but much of that has not changed much in the last few years, so people can search my posts for that info.

Date: 06/28/20 17:47
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: Rmosele

Thanks for the summary of your experience. I'm glad now I bought the Bearcat 125.

Date: 06/28/20 21:51
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: exopr

Appreciate all the info!

Date: 06/29/20 03:22
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: detiley

Thanks for the information.

Posted from Android

Date: 06/29/20 04:31
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: radio

Thank you very much. This will help my next purchase.

Date: 06/29/20 06:20
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: goneon66

outstanding info.  thanks for posting...........


Date: 06/29/20 21:04
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: TCnR

Nice summary, thanks for spending the time to put all this together.

Date: 06/30/20 00:05
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: norm1153

What are your thoughts on the Uniden SDS100?

Date: 06/30/20 08:08
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: WW

I haven't personally used the SDS100, but its reviews are very unimpressive.  This is one of those digital scanners that tries to do everything and winds up being mediocre or worse at all of them.  I've read that it is particularly "deaf" in the VHF high band where the AAR railroad voice channels live.  Unless one is using the radio for non-railroad scanning purposes--e.g., listening to trunking publice service channels, etc.--there's not a very good reason to buy it for railfan use.  It will do NXDN digital with a $75 add-on, but that puts its already high price into the range where one can buy a far better performing commercial NXDN portable for about the same or even a little less money.  For analog railroad radio use, the Undien BC-125AT will do a better job than the SDS100 for hundreds of dollars less cost.   I'd pass on the SDS100. 

Date: 07/07/20 09:37
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: skyview

I have found the NX-700 to be excelllent, and I have 2, 1 in car, and for use with railroad radio stream.  I do have a Kenwood D700 dual ban ham radio in the car, and it sure seems to be very very similar to the NX-700 for reception, many times I run both, with 1 or the other outperforming the other at times.

I also have an Icom 3161.  I have had issues though, the NXDN never could be made to work.  I have sent the radio in for repair, and sure enough the NXDN board was bad, but notw they cant seem to find replacement parts.  Been without the 3161 for almost 6 months now.  Good receiver, but....

Date: 07/08/20 18:28
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: WW

^Interesting about the 3161.  Mine has been rock solid for about a decade.  My only minor issue with it (a common one if they get worn on a belt a lot) is the antenna connection in the radio came loose.  A 5 mine resolder job by a radio tech fixed that.  I heard about some issues with some early 3161's where the NXDN board was added to the radio after the radio left the factory by the dealer or a radio tech.  The NXDN board would fail for no good reason.

As to the Kenwood D-700, it suffers from the same nemesis of nearly all amateur radios (an exception is the Kenwood TM-281A amateur mobile) in that it lacks a 2.5 kHz tuning step capability, which means it can not tune the "splinter"  AAR narrow-band analog channels created by narrow-banding.

You comments about the NX-700 are spot on.  My NX-700 is over eight years old and hasn't had a single hiccup.  My only complaint about the NX-700 (or the NX-200/210 portables) has to do with programming some of the NXDN features--there are some undocumented parameters that can cause issues in the NXDN operation.  None of them would affect the average railfan's use of the radio at all, but on more complicated radio systems I finally had to spend some time on the phone with a Kenwood tech to find the errant parameter that I would have never found on my own.  Once set correctly, the issue was resolved, but nothing in the Kenwood documentation even mentioned it.  So, as can be typical, it wasn't a radio issue, but a documentation  issue.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/08/20 18:49 by WW.

Date: 07/26/20 09:07
Re: My 2020 radio synopsis
Author: RHicks

My Icom 3161 and 5061 have been going strong for over 10 years. I'm not in a hurry to upgrade those anytime soon.

Posted from Android

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