The handheld VHF radio market has been largely ruled by Icom and Sportys but recently, a surprise manufacturer appeared on the aviation scene.
This fall, Yaesu USA introduced the VXA-100 aviation handheld. This itty bitty radio caught our attention in a big way, so we decided to have a look. The Yaesu literature was so bold as to invite comparison to the handheld icon, the Icom IC-A22, so we decided to put both to the test.
Expect to pay the same for an IC-A22 or a VXA-100, from around $460, with standard accessory set. Theyre available from Aircraft Spruce, Pacific and Gulf Coast Avionics, Tropic Aero or almost any mail order pilot outfit. The Yaesu may be harder to find, since its new on the scene. Call Yaesu to locate a source.
Not New Guys
This is not Yaesus first radio; the company has a long history of excellent amateur and marine radios. Their reputation in ham gear is outstanding, at least judging by our talks with radio operators and news group comments. Both Yaesu and Icom have a rep for introducing innovative gear to the ham world.
Aviation is a new market for Yaesu, but the technology is similar to the companys other markets. If youre wondering what took them so long to get into aviation, the answer, like so much in this business, is market size.
In the U. S., there are 400,000 amateur radio operators. Thats comparable to the number of pilots. But the hams are likely far more active as a group, at least in terms of gadget buying. And every ham buys many radios, while few pilots invest in more than one handheld VHF, if they buy any at all.
Icom is in a similar market mix. Their amateur and marine radios are also well regarded and last year at Oshkosh, they rolled up in a 40-foot RV filled to the roof, and more, with radio gear of all types. Because of the extensive cross-pollination between proficient pilots and radio operators, this has been a successful ploy. Its natural for a company to look at their competitions inroads into other markets and decide, corporately speaking, I wanna play, too! The challenge is to bring something innovative and new to play with. Yaesu has done just that.
The Basic Animal
These units are called handheld navcomms and we suppose thats an accurate term, since they cover the frequency range from 108.00 MHz to 136.975 MHz, just the way a KX 155A does. They include a VOR converter so you can determine your radial or bearing in relation to a VOR station. Neither is capable of localizer guidance, which is probably a good thing. We wouldnt want to try shooting a precision approach with one of these things. Better to leave that to the panel gear or a handheld GPS, if under emergency conditions.
Even though some folks will lash a handheld VHF portable to the panel and use it as a primary radio, we wouldnt want to depend on either of these units for getting around in serious flying of any kind, save for use in an airplane without an electrical system. Thats not to say they arent exceptional units. Just limited by their size in visibility and operability, not to mention limited transmit power.
Both the Icom and Yaesu have identical technical specifications. The Icom boasts one whole tenth of a watt more in audio output. Both will transmit and receive over the entire comm band. Each transmitter is rated for 5 watts PEP power, or, a 1.5 watt carrier.
Peak envelope radiated power is a technical specification not unlike the miles-per-gallon on a new car, or the maximum range at 55 percent power. The numbers are based on all factors being perfect. Since these are AM transmitters, the modulation increases or decreases the power output.
To a point, the louder you talk the more watts you put out. However, none of us (apart from a few politicians) speaks with a maximum volume monotone. Both units have the ability to set the VOR OBS manually or to read the current radial in a digital readout. While this is a handy feature, increasingly, its falling into the not-that-useful category, given the accuracy and features of portable GPS.
Both navcomms have ready access to the emergency frequency (121.5 MHz) and both receive NOAA weather frequencies. If you dont know your local NOAA channel, you can easily scan the available ones. While NOAA is no substitute for real aviation weather information, its still helpful. Both have frequency memory capability. Both have rechargeable nicads as standard equipment and alkaline packs as options.
Each of these units has a split or duplex mode. This allows you to transmit on a comm frequency and listen on a VOR at the same time. This is helpful if youre lost and cant reach the ARTCC or approach facility on the radio. VOR stations have VHF remote comm outlets-at least many do-and you may be close enough to a VOR to be heard.
Both displays are liquid crystal, with dark numbers on a light gray background. The Yaesu, while overall a smaller display, has better contrast and darker digits, in our view. However, the VOR information on the Yaesu is smaller. Overall, though, the Yaesu has the superior display, at least in sunlight.
The Yaesu does suffer for poor night lighting, however. The Icoms green/white lighting is far superior to the soft red in the VXA-100. The LCD display is adequate, but the keypad is simply rows of glowing buttons. At least the Icom has numbers on the keys that help in the dark. With the VXA-100, youre faced with 16 buttons and little idea whats where.
Both units have receive and transmit indicators. The receive indicator comes on when the squelch is broken, either by a signal or static noise and the TX comes on when you push the transmit key. The IC-A22 has a TX and RX icon in the display, while the VXA-100 has a two-color LED on top of the unit. Theoretically, it ought to be easy to see. However, its easily washed out in bright light, whereas the IC-A22 just gets clearer in bright light.
Weve often said that the limiting factor for avionics size is the human interface. The units can get just so small before there isnt any room for buttons and knobs. The VXA-100 is a good example; theres not much more to it than the display, speaker and keypad. Its a funny looking little piker, short and stubby rather than long and thin, like the Icom.
To turn the unit on, you push the little orange button. To switch off, hold it for two seconds, just like a portable GPS. At power-up, the unit gives a little upswept chirp sound. In general, the VXA-100 does a good deal of beeping and chirping. Its a friendly little thing. If you want to use it in church and dont want all that bleating, you can switch off the beeps. The Icom has key beeps too, but only a single tone.
On both the Icom IC-A22 and the VXA-100, data entry can be either from the numeric keypad or by dialing the top knob. Numeric entry is easier, in our opinion. The VXA-100 has three different ways of accessing the frequencies. The VFO mode allows direct entry of the frequency. VFO stands for variable frequency oscillator, a ham term for the ability to infinitely set frequency values. In this mode, you dial in the frequencies with the knob, or punch them in from the keypad.
Pushing the volume knob makes the VXA-100 do more tricks, including accessing the other frequency operational modes. Pushing it once puts you in the -MR- or memory mode. Here, you can not only store your favorite 50 frequencies, but give them alphanumeric names as well. No more trying to remember if tower is memory five, six or 16.
Using a combination of the keypad and rotary switch, you can assign up to eight characters in each memory position. Not as good as a database, but it sure is easy to use and cheaper than a GPS COM. Speaking of databases, the VXA-100 does have a rudimentary sort of database. By pressing the volume knob again, you enter book mode. This mode has commonly assigned frequencies stored under alphabetical names. There are 22 ARINC frequencies, 15 ARTCC, eight Unicom and two school freqs, as well as the common air-to-air channels. While the freqs arent visible, they can be revealed by pushing the enter button. This mode is useful for scanning for unknown frequencies.
The IC-A22 also has a six-place comment field that can be associated with any stored frequency. We found it to be more difficult to use than the Yaesus data entry, because you need to store the frequency and comment at the same time, and you can only use the keypad to do this. Each of the keypad numbers has up to four alpha characters associated with it, like a telephone keypad.
The problem is we havent exactly memorized the telephone system, so we had to use the cheat sheet in the manual. As a rule, we dont like functions that require reference to the manual and suspect that most aircraft owners share the view.
The IC-A22 has slightly larger buttons with a bit more space between them. We found both of them to be relatively easy to use, but neither is particularly effortless in rough air. Neither unit lends itself to single-handed operation unless you have the digital dexterity of a surgeon.
The knobs on the Icom unit bug us, frankly. The left knob is a concentric type that controls the on/off/volume and squelch. Its placed so close to the antenna that its hard to grip, even if you have tweezer-like fingers. Getting hold of the squelch knob, located close to the chassis, is doubly difficult. This knob is also one of the most used, because of the dynamic range of received signals.
The dial button is closer to the edge of the chassis and easier to operate. Thats both a good thing and a bad thing. Because of its exposed position, its easily bumped, although both units do have a lock function, which prevents accidental frequency changes. Neither prevents unintentional transmissions, so avoid wedging them in a spot where the transmit button could be depressed.
One unique thing about the Yaesu is automatic squelch. Automatic squelch has been around for years on panel-mounted radios, but its rare in handhelds. We didnt spend enough time with it to know how well it works under all conditions. Our impression is that it works well, though. When we adjusted the IC-A22s squelch for optimum level, both units received the same off-the-air signals. The automatic squelch threshold is adjustable in a set-up mode, in case youre so inclined. Ours worked fine right from the factory.
We discovered a problem with the Yaesu when we did our performance tests. No, not a product flaw or technical difficulty, but a design difference. The VXA-100 uses a different type of antenna connector, like a super-small TNC connector. We couldnt find any adapters and all attempts to jury-rig something lead to erroneous readings. What this means to you, dear consumer, is the adapters in your airplane designed to interface with the antenna wont work unless you get the CN-3 adapter. Order one if you plan to hook the Yaesu to an external antenna. (A good idea if you really want to talk to someone more than a mile away.)
Using distant and nearby signals in space, we were able to determine that both navcoms were almost dead even in performance. They received the same signals at the same distance and transmitted over the same range. Subjectively, these two units were matched in performance and we doubt if users would notice any difference at all.
Side by side, in blindfolded audio tests, we couldnt tell one unit from the other in terms of audio clarity and crispness. For a tiny little speaker, both radios deliver remarkably good quality. This is much improved, of course, by using a headset adapter, the only practical means of using these things in the cockpit.
Battery Supply, Accessories
We were surprised by the power consumption habits of these units. We charged them fully as soon as they arrived and both ran for a week under fairly constant transmit and receive duty cycle, without weakening appreciably. Battery performance has improved vastly since VHF handhelds first appeared a decade or so ago.
Transmitter power remained high on both sets, even after 10 hours of operation. Both of these batteries are rated for 600 mAh. The IC-A22 draws slightly more current, so its battery should have proportionately shorter life. The difference would be minutes, though, not hours.
Both sets came with the nicad batteries as standard equipment, along with the required wall charger. Both also come with headset adapters and Icom includes a metal belt clip and a carrying case.
The VXA-100 belt clip is attached to the battery case. If you want a case, its a $16 add-on accessory. A cigarette lighter cord is available for both and should be considered if you want to use these radios in the airplane. Other Yaesu accessories include a speaker mic (for ramp rats) and drop-in rapid charger.
Alkaline packs are available for both, a $38 add-on for the VXA-100 and $33 for the Icom. Since most of us tend to use these devices infrequently, alkalines are a good idea. Accessory wise, the Icom has a ton of them, including desktop and wall chargers, rapid chargers and aircraft mounting brackets.
Both units were accompanied by adequate instructions but Icom doesnt make it easy for the new owner. Icoms instructions include Spanish, French and Dutch versions, which makes its a nuisance to locate the right information quickly.
Both of these products are outstanding, in our view. Still, between the two, for general purpose on-the-ramp communication and back-up comm for IFR, our choice is the Yaesu VXA-100. It has the best combination of small size, good performance and neat features.
That said, we wouldnt recommend it for a permanent installation in a nordo flivver such as a Cub or Champ, however. Because the Icom is easier to mount, thanks to its conventional shape and is, in our view, more ruggedly constructed, we think its the better choice in that application. (Sportys sells a portable mounting bracket that will accept the Icom, plus Icom offers its own version.)
Speaking of Sportys, its JD-200 is the third man in this comparison. At $375, its a good performer and a good value, even if its featureset is a bit less extensive than the Yaesu. (We last reviewed that unit in the February, 1996 Aviation Consumer.)
All things considered, for the money, Yaesu has a winner if you desire all the features that can be crammed into a small package. Were happy to see them in the aviation market.
by Gary Picou
Gary Picou is Aviation Consumers avionics editor.