Amateur radios have been a part of the technological landscape for over 100 years. Beginning in the United States and spreading throughout the world, amateur radio operators started sending signals to each-other. Today, there are millions of amateurs around the globe, ranging from hobbyists to survivalists. Many emergency services also use Ham radio, either as a primary or secondary method of communication. The origins of the term “ham” are unclear. However, in the early days, amateur radios were poorly-regulated, and often interfered with professional stations. This frustrated the station operators, who complained of “hams,” or amateurs, messing up their signal.
Nowadays, ham radios are much more regulated. You can only transmit on some bands that won’t interfere with AM or FM radio. If you’re in the US, you’ll also need a license from the FCC. This means you’ll need to pass a test, but the test is relatively easy as long as you study. Once you pass, you’ll be able to talk with fellow enthusiasts the world over.
For many people, a ham radio is a way to stay in touch in the event of an emergency. For instance, after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, most communications were down. Cell coverage, for example, wouldn’t be available on much of the island for days or weeks after the storm. During this time, ham radio operators served as a vital link with rescuers and emergency services.
But in order to stay in contact, you’re going to need a decent antenna. In the past, we’ve reviewed HAM radio power supplies. Now, we’re going to take a look at the three best magnetic mobile dual-band HAM radio antennas. We’ll start with the VFAN Dual Band Mobile Antenna. This is a compact, affordable antenna that can transmit at up to 100 watts. Next, we’ll review the Nagoya UT-72. This is a mid-sized antenna that includes an SMA cable adapter. Finally, we’ll look at the Tram Amateur Dual Band Antenna. This is a powerful, 180-watt antenna for users who need the strongest possible transmission. Which one is right for you? Let’s dig a little deeper, and find out!
Ham Radio Basics
Ham radios operate across the widest frequency range of any amateur radios. They can tune in to between 1.8 and 1,300MHz, with some gaps in the middle. They’re also not the only kind of amateur radio! There are family radio service (FRS) radios, which are handheld walkie talkies. There are also citizen’s band (CB) radios, which can be either handheld or larger. However, FRS radios have a very limited range, and CB radio frequencies can be crowded. These radios are usually referred to as “personal radios,” rather than “amateur radios,” to distinguish them from ham radios.
If you want a long-range signal and more open channels, ham is by far the superior option. That said, there are some limitations. By law, ham radios can only be used for non-commercial purposes; they can’t be used to make money. The purpose of this rule is to keep the airwaves free for communication. Imagine if every taxi company and delivery service used ham radios for their operation. There would be no open frequencies for amateur operators to use! In addition, “non-commercial” also means that ham radio is for personal communications only. So, for instance, you can’t use ham radio to run a radio station, even if it’s a nonprofit station.
There are some exceptions to this, mostly for teachers and emergency services. For example, a hospital is normally not allowed to use a ham radio, since this would be commercial use. However, hospitals may use ham radios as part of a broader emergency response. They can also use the radios when participating in emergency response drills.
In addition, there are some limits on how powerful your transmitter can be. Base stations are limited to 1,500 watts, enough to bounce a signal off the atmosphere and over the horizon. Most handheld radios are in the five to eight watt range, which is enough to transmit several miles. That said, most other accessories, such as antennas, are very loosely regulated.
Vertical Ham Radio Antennas
There are several types of ham radio antennas, most of them fairly large. For instance, you can easily rig up a dipole antenna that takes up half the backyard. These antennas provide the most powerful signal, but they’re not practical for all applications. For one thing, most homeowner’s associations have rules against large backyard antennas. For another thing, if your ham radio is in your car or truck, you need a relatively small, mobile antenna.
A vertical antenna can actually provide a number of benefits. For one thing, because of the antenna’s orientation, the maximum radiation will be parallel to the ground. This means that while your mobile radio may not draw as many watts as a home radio, it’s surprisingly effective. In addition, a vertical antenna is, by its very nature, omnidirectional. This is essential for any mobile antenna, since you won’t have to make adjustments on the go.
Unless they’re sitting on the ground, vertical antennas will require a ground plane. This means a sheet of metal or other conductive material that acts as a ground. On top of your vehicle, the vehicle itself can act as a ground. But if you’re installing a vertical antenna on top of your home, you’ll want to install it on a metal plate. Many people actually use three vertical antennas together to boost their signal. Remember, the higher from the ground the antenna is, the longer your range will be.
For HF signals, most vertical antennas will be a quarter of a wavelength long. Some are twice as long, at half a wavelength. Vertical antennas are also frequently used for VHF/UHF signals. Many incorporate specialized circuits that allow for dual-band operation. With this style of antenna, you can use VHF and UHF bands simultaneously.
VFAN Dual Band Mobile Antenna
The VFAN Dual Band Mobile Antenna is an 18-inch antenna that works on both the VHF and UHF bands. It has a narrow, all-black design, with a small nub at the top, just like an ordinary car antenna. The base is just under three inches in diameter, and utilizes a rare earth magnet for mounting. Rare earth magnets are far more powerful than traditional iron magnets, and provide better security. You don’t need to worry about the base flying off your car at high speeds.
That said, we were disappointed with the way the antenna attaches to the base. It slips over a rubber boot that protrudes from the magnet. Normally, this friction fit is very secure. However, if you need the antenna to flex, it will flex at the boot itself, putting stress on the connection. If you’re hitting the garage door on your way in and out, the antenna will eventually pop off. On the other hand, if you don’t need the antenna to flex, there’s no problem.
The antenna connects to your radio via a 10-foot RG58 cable with a PL-259 connector. This is the standard connection on most ham radios. If you’re not sure, check your owner’s manual before you click the “buy” button.
At 18 inches, this is a quarter-wavelength antenna, and works in two different ranges. It will operate in the VHF band, from 137 to 149Mhz, or at 437 to 480MHz UHF frequencies. On VHF, it provides a signal gain of 2dBi, or more than 50 percent. On UHF, it has a gain of 3dBi, doubling the power of the original transmission. The VFAN antenna can be used to broadcast at up to 100 watts. That’s fairly low-powered for a home antenna. However, it’s more than you’ll need for most car-mounted ham radio systems. Everything is covered by a 12-month manufacturer’s warranty. If it fails prematurely, you’ll get a full refund or a replacement.
The Nagoya UT-72 is a 19-inch antenna that mounts on a sturdy magnetic base. Like the VFAN’s, the base uses a heavy metal magnet, so you don’t have to worry about security. You also don’t need to worry about the antenna flexing. It has a spring near the base, and will bend freely when under stress.
The cable is an RG58, with a PL-259 connector, just like the VFAN’s. However, the cable is noticeably beefier and more heavy duty. It’s also noticeably longer, at 14 feet in length. At this length, it can be routed easily through just about any vehicle. Finally, it includes a short adapter cable for plugging into an SMA jack. SMA is a smaller RF connector format, typically used on more compact ham radios. For the majority of vehicle-mounted systems, you’ll be using PL-259. But hey, it never hurts to have options!
This dual-band antenna can receive VHF signals from 137 to 174MHz, as well as 400 to 520MHz UHF signals. This gives it a wider range of frequencies than the VFAN antenna. The more frequencies you can pick up, the more operators you can chat with. The gain is surprisingly good, at 3.5dBi on both bands. This means the signals you receive will be amplified by more than 100 percent. That said, the maximum power is rated for 80 watts, less than the VFAN’s.
Tram Amateur Dual Band Antenna
The Tram Amateur Dual Band Antenna is by far the most powerful of the bunch. It’s also the largest, at 37 inches in length. This makes it a half-wavelength antenna for VHF signals, or ⅝ wavelength for UHF signals. The large magnet base measures 3 ½ inches in diameter, and utilizes a rare earth magnet. It also has a flexible bit where the antenna attaches, so low vehicle clearance is not a concern. The cable is a heavy-duty RG58 variety, with a PL-259 connection. It’s 15 feet in length, so you’ll have an easy time wiring most vehicles.
This dual-band antenna is optimized for 70 centimeter or 2-meter radios. This works out to 144 to 148mHz in the VHF band, and 440 to 450mHz in the UHF band. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, the antenna is factory-tuned, so you don’t have to mess with any adjustments. On the other hand, you only get to use a relatively narrow range of frequencies. On VHF, the gain is a respectable, but not overly-powerful 2.4Dbi. In the UHF band, the Tram antenna will provide 5dBi of gain, a truly impressive level of performance. The maximum power rating is a whopping 180 watts. This means it can be used with even some of the more powerful mobile ham radios.
As you can see, each of these antennas has its own benefits and drawbacks. We started out by reviewing the VFAN Dual Band Mobile Antenna. This is a reliable, 100-watt quarter-wavelength antenna that will be powerful enough for most users. We weren’t impressed with the mounting system, but the 12-month warranty does instill some confidence.
Despite its cosmetic similarities, the Nagoya UT-72 is a very different antenna altogether. To begin with, the mounting system is more secure, with a proper, flexible design. For another thing, you can pick up more frequencies on both the VHF and UHF bands. Finally, the 3.5dBi gain is superior to what the VFAN will give you on either band. That said, the Nagoya is slightly less powerful, limited to 80 watts. It’s also pricier than the VFAN antenna.
The Tram Amateur Dual Band Antenna is the most powerful of the bunch, with a maximum power of 180 watts. It’s also one of the easiest to use, since it’s already pre-tuned for the 70cm and 2m bands. Moreover, it provides an impressive 5dBi of gain on VHF bands. The only major downside is that you can only tune to a relatively narrow selection of frequencies. But if you need a ton of power on these two popular frequencies, you’ll be very pleased.