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Railfan Technology > What portable radio antenna to use

Date: 04/03/24 14:13
What portable radio antenna to use
Author: WW

When I review and compare portable radios, I generally try to use the stock antenna supplied with the radio for the comparison.  Note here that many commercial portable radios don’t come with a supplied antenna.  For those, when comparing, I use what is generally considered a “standard” antenna for comparison purposes.    Most amateur portable radios come with a supplied antenna to match the band(s) and frequency ranges  that the radio is designed to transmit over.  Scanners generally come equipped with an antenna designed to receive a wide range of radio frequencies.

The “golden rule” of portable radio antennas (and mobile radio antennas, as well) is that the broader range of frequencies that they are designed to receive, the poorer that they will perform on a specific frequency range.  So, going from the frequency range that an antenna will receive from the largest to smallest frequency range, the antennas would array generally like this:
  • Scanner antenna.  Wide reception range, but average to substandard reception on specific frequency ranges.
  • Dual-band antenna.  Generally tuned to reception on 2 (occasionally 3) specific bands—VHF-UHF band is typical. Generally average reception on both bands, some dual-band antennas may be “prejudiced” in favor of one band (for whatever reason, many Chinese dual-band antennas seem "biased" toward better reception in the UHF band).
  • Single-band antenna.  Generally tuned for a single band—VHF or UHF, for example.  Generally average to better than average performance within it designed reception band.
  • Frequency-range specific antennas.  Tuned for a part of a single band—150 mHz-162 mHz, for example.  Generally above average to excellent performance within its designed reception range.
So, what works best for railfanning?  If a railfan is only concerned with good reception on the VHF voice band used by railroads (roughly 160-162 mHz), then one of the single-band antennas tuned for that frequency range can be a good choice.  If one also wants good reception on the UHF train telemetry channels, then dual band VHF-UHF antennas can be a good choice.  Note here that some dual-band antennas are tuned for the amateur portions of the VHF-UHF bands, which makes them perform slightly worse for railfanning than a dual band antenna tuned to receive then entire 136-174 mHz VHF and 430-470 mHz UHF bands or an antenna specifically tuned for the commercial portion of the VHF-UHF bands.
In all of those various types of antennas, there are usually “extended range” or “high gain” antennas available.  These can be very handy if one is railfanning in areas where radio reception is marginal.  That said, most of them have one significant disadvantage—they are physically long antennas.  For example, a “regular” single-band VHF antenna is usually 4”-6” long, while an extended range antenna is usually 7”-9” long.  Those are usually physically manageable and convenient.   In dual-band antennas, however, a regular dual-band antenna is usually 4”-7” long, but an extended range antenna is often 15”-17” long.  When I carry a radio with an extended range dual-band antenna on my belt, the tip of the antenna is hitting me in the armpit.  Not convenient.  The popular Diamond RH77-CA is a good example of one of these very good-performing, but LONG antennas.  As is true in a lot of the radio world, there are Chinese “knockoffs” of this antenna, along with many others.  They may or may not perform as well—buyer beware.  That is not to say that there are not good-performing Chinese antennas.  An example is the “standard”  4” dual-band antenna sold with some Wouxun radios.  On my Wouxun KG-UV6X dual-band radio, that antenna performs as well as any extended-range antenna that I own.  There can be occasional other "surprises."  I've seen some extended-range antennas that perform no better and sometimes worse than a "standard" antenna.  In one of the biggest antenna "surprises" that I've had recently, I bought a 2 3/4" "stubby" Chinese dual-band antenna that outperformed several of my standard portable antennas and even a couple of Chinese supposed extended range antennas.  

Finally, as I’ve stated numerous times, a good antenna will generally not make a bad radio perform much better, but a bad antenna on a good radio will absolutely make it perform worse.  Sort of like using cheap lens glass on an expensive camera—the results are unlikely to be good.

Date: 05/01/24 12:34
Re: What portable radio antenna to use
Author: Rick2582

I like the RH77A because it does have good gain on different frequency bands used by RRs.
The one drawback I've seen - the antenna is not physically rugged.  One drop from 3 feet onto the ground broke the antenna right off at the connector.

Date: 05/02/24 13:38
Re: What portable radio antenna to use
Author: WW

I'll add a quick cautionary note here about Chinese antennas.  The "stubby" antenna I referred to above WAS a pretty good performer.  Today, at only a few months old, with only limited use, that antenna failed for no apparent reason.  Yesterday, it worked fine.  Today. it was useless.  For a minute, I thought the the radio was "bricked."  Changed to a different antenna and all is well with the radio.

To be candid, from my experience maintaining probably close to 50 portable radios for one of  my employers for several years, plus my own experience, I've found only one antenna (a VHF single-band antenna) that will stand up to lots of use and physical abuse--it is the Laird EXH-160 series exntended range antennas.  Unfortunately, they can sometimes be hard to find, and often nearly impossible to find one with a BNC mount that is common on many scanners. But, they do work long and hard, and they offer very good reception on the VHF railroad voice channels.

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