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How do you choose an antenna analyzer?

January 23, 2013 Dan KB6NU

A reader recently e-mailed me:

In the past you told me you started with the Autek RF-1, and later moved to the Palstar ZM-30. I am finally getting around to thinking about purchasing an antenna analyzer, but I am stumped by the choices. In order of increasing purchase price this is what I’ve turned up:

How does one decide? Where does one go to find out the differences? Other than asking a fellow ham, how does one find out which one is the best antenna analyzer without paying an arm and a leg (unless the feature(s) so purchased are deemed worth the cost)?

Thanks! 73

He actually missed several other good choices:

  • Autek VA1 – $199. This is actually the antenna analyzer that I first purchased.
  • MFJ 259B – $240. This is arguably the most popular antenna analyzer on the market. MFJ has several other models with different feature sets.
  • YouKits FG-01 – $250. This is a very cute, little analyzer with a small graphical display. It seems kind of expensive, but the graphical display might be worth it.
  • Comet CAA500 – $450.

So, how do you choose just one from this list? Well, I think the first thing that you have to ask yourself is how you’re going to use the analyzer. If all you’re going to do is to check the SWR of your HF dipoles, then buy the Autek RF-1. It’s the least expensive unit, is reasonably accurate, and is small and lightweight, making it easy to use outside where your antennas are located.

Autek RF-1

The Autek RF-1 is inexpensive, and its small size makes it easy to use outdoors where your antennas are.

If you want to do some more serious frequency analysis, then you should be looking at the W4RT miniVNA or, if you have more cash, the Timewave TZ-900s. These instruments can help you do a lot more in-depth analysis of your antenna system. The figure below, for example, shows a plot generated by the miniVNA software. It shows the SWR of a multi-band vertical antenna from 3 – 33 MHz.

miniVNa display

For more sophisticated frequency analysis, consider the miniVNA. It uses a computer to generate graphs like this.

Some antenna analyzers do more than just SWR. For example, what sold me first on the Autek VA1 and then on the Palstar was that they also measured reactance. So, you can use the antenna analyzer as an LC meter as well. Palstar also says that you can use the ZM-3 as a low-level signal source.

Next, you need to consider what bands you’ll be using it on. Many antenna analyzers only cover the HF bands. That’s a bummer if you like operating 6m, or like to experiment with VHF/UHF antennas. A friend of mine bought the Palstar antenna analyzer after talking to the company at Dayton. At the time, they said that they were planning to come out with a model that covered 6m, as well as the HF bands.

Unfortunately, they never did come out with a 6m version, and he was sorely disappointed. He ended up buying a miniVNA instead.

Asking your fellow hams about the antenna analyzers they have is actually a good way to figure out what’s best for you. If you ask nicely, they might even let you borrow their analyzers or come over and show you how it works on your antennas.

Reading the reviews on eHam is also a good way to gather information before making a purchase like this. You certainly have to take the reviews there with a grain of salt, but if several reviewers mention a particularly good or particularly bad feature of a product, then it’s certainly something worth taking a hard look at.

If you’re new to the hobby, starting out small and working your way up might be a good strategy. You could buy one of the less expensive models and get used to how they work,  then sell it and make the leap to a more sophisticated unit. The way things are going, you should be able to sell your first antenna analyzer for at least 80% of what you paid for it.

Whatever you do, don’t fall victim to “paralysis by analysis.” Go ahead and buy one and start using it. This is a learn by doing hobby after all.

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