The HF Utility Receiver and Accessories
From The RadioReference Wiki
The HF Communications Receiver
A receiver for monitoring voice HF utilities must have the following features:
- Coverage from 100 kHz to 30 MHz
- Upper sideband (USB) and lower sideband (LSB) modes
- Good stability (doesn't drift off frequency)
- Good selectivity (able to seperate 2 stations that are close to one another in frequency)
Many receivers and portables marketed as shortwave or world band radios will satisfy these requirements. The majority of voice communications use USB, but LSB is certainly possible (foreign fishing fleets have been known to use LSB); therefore, whatever you select must have USB and LSB capabilities. The lower band limit of 100 kHz is typical of many HF radios. Other features such as memory channels and alpha tagging are desirable, but not necessary. See the Receiver Reviews article for several links on this important topic.
Software Defined Radios
Software Defined Radios have received the greatest push for development in recent years, with desktop receivers pretty much dying out. They offer tremendous bang for the buck, but do require some study and trial-and-error before you get things to work properly. There's a huge range of available models, from the el-cheapo sticks to the thousand (and more) models and lots in between. See the article linked above for a great deal more on this subject.
But What if I want to Decode Digital Signals?
While it's true that many radios (and some wide banded radios like the AOR8200) will decode ALE and HFDL signals, as you get into the more complex modes, the needs for a better receiver become rapidly apparent. Read the A Few Words on Receivers article for a more complete discussion on this topic.
Propagation and You
Your ability to receive HF communications is affected by signal propagation conditions in the atmosphere. Many factors affect propagation, including sunspots, solar flares, and the time of day. Frequencies above 10 mhz or so are usable during the local daytime, while frequencies below 10 mhz will be usable at night. If you are a newcomer to this topic, reading a good primer would be a great benefit. Don't get discouraged about all the jargon; whole books and very technical scientific papers have been written on the subject; but it's unnecessary to have a degree to gain a basic understanding. To get you started, please see the Propagation Primer website by Geoffrey Noles AE4RV (requires Flash player).
Your station is only as good as the antenna you can use. The best antennas for receiving HF is going to depend largely on what you can put up and what kind of receiver you are using. Generally, something that is relatively broadbanded - such as a random wire or inverted L - will be the best one to get you started. Our HF Antennas page has a number of possibilities, including some that are already assembled - all you need to do is supply the feedline and proper connectors.
Another possibility is to use a Magnetic Longwire Balun(MLB) with a good grade of coax to feed an inverted L design. Plans exist on building baluns on the net; or you can purchase the popular PAR EF-SWL antenna, which uses a similar principle. The HF Antennas article has information on these topics as well.
If you live in an urban area, or are plagued with noise problems, consider utilizing a loop antenna. MW DXers have been utilizing loops for their directional capabilities almost since the beginning of the broadcast industry; they are useful for HF listening because they are less sensitive to certain kinds of electrical noise. If you're interested in this topic, please see our Loops page.
Unfortunately, many lower end communications receivers, as well as Software Defined Radios, may be overloaded by local MW and/or FM stations, causing noise and other artifacts in the HF spectrum. You may need to add some front-end filters - see the Filters section of the Improving HF Reception article.
Using Remote Receivers
This is the DXer's 'secret weapon' - if you can't hear a station because it's propagationally not possible, or you want to check a signal from another part of the world, simply use one of the Live Tunable Receivers. Some may need a registration process to use their site.