The Jingtong JT-208 VHF handie-talkie
[Note: This is an old article. The radio described here is no longer in production. There are now many newer and better hand-held radios from China available.]
The Jingtong JT-208 VHF transceiver is a VHF hand-held made in China. (There is also a UHF model, the JT-308.) The principal attraction of these transceivers is that they are very cheap. They can be had for as little as £30 on eBay, and the cost comes down to nearer £20 if you club together with some friends and buy several of them at a time. This was a bargain I found impossible to resist. So what you are probably interested to know is, are they any good, and why are they so cheap?
The reason why they are so cheap isn't hard to guess. China is a vast country with a booming economy, and there is a lot of construction and large-scale manufacturing going on. Workers on construction and factory sites use radios like this to keep in contact. The Jingtong transceivers are not made specifically for the amateur bands, but cover a frequency range that happens to include the 2m band (or the 70cm band in the case of the JT-308.) These radios are probably manufactured in tens if not hundreds of thousands. The low price is due to the economics of producing things in large volumes in China, plus the fact that these radios are not sold by ham radio dealers who exploit the fact that it's a hobby purchase to sell at a huge profit.
I ordered my radio direct from the UK importer, and it arrived the next morning by Royal Mail. In the box was the radio, a short (11cm long) helical "rubber duck" antenna, a drop-in battery charger designed for 220V, 50Hz, a belt clamp and an instruction book. The battery pack was already installed in the radio, and is a 7.2V 600mAH NiCd pack (despite the manual and some ads claiming it is NiMH.) I also purchased one of the optional headsets, which is almost identical to a mobile phone hands-free kit that I have.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the quality of the Jingtong transceiver, even if you disregard the price. When you open the box, all the items and the manual are nicely packed in polythene bags, and there is a peel-off strip to protect the display. The radio's case is plastic over a steel frame, and is not waterproof, so it's not in the same class as some of the higher priced amateur band hand-helds: think "Alinco" not "Icom." But bearing in mind its use on thousands of Chinese building sites, it's surely robust enough for normal amateur use.
The Jingtong JT-208 covers a frequency range from 136.000 to 173.995MHz, on both receive and transmit. The frequency step size can be set to 5, 10, 12.5 or 25KHz. The transceiver doesn't know anything about amateur bands, band plans or repeater shifts, but you can define a TX/RX offset of any amount within the radio's range. Alternatively, you can program a memory channel with separate transmit and receive frequencies for a repeater. The radio supports CTCSS with 38 tone frequencies, which is somewhat fewer than those available in my FT-817. A quick check shows that 69.3, 159.8, 165.5, 171.3, 177.3, 183.5, 189.9, 196.6, 199.5, 206.5, 229.1 and 254.1 are omitted. There is no DTMF and, less surprisingly, no 1750Hz tone burst.
There are 30 memories, numbered from 1 to 30 (the manual, and ads for the transceiver, claim only 15.) Each memory can be programmed with a frequency, repeater shift +, - or off, and CTCSS settings. Alternatively, a memory can be programmed with a separate transmit and receive frequency. It's a simple matter to program simplex channels and all the local repeaters into the memories, and then use the transceiver permanently in memory mode. In memory mode, the display can show either the channel number or the frequency. If the frequency is shown, the display shows the transmit frequency when you press the PTT. There is a single, simple scan mode, which will scan all the programmed memories, and pause on an active channel.
The top panel has two controls, an on/off volume control and a squelch control. The fact that there is a real, physical on/off switch explains why the radio can be shipped with the battery pack fitted: when it's off, it really is off. The batteries should not go flat if the radio is left unused for a long period.
When switched on, the radio emits a loud and rather annoying short tune. This cannot, as far as I can tell, be turned off. The LCD display is backlit a pleasant shade of blue. The backlight comes on for a few seconds whenever a button is pressed. The radio lacks any options to customize this behaviour.
The Jingtong JT-208 is very simple to operate, but you will need to remember the key combinations for the various options as there is no text menu on the display, and no legends (other than the usual alphanumeric keypad legends) on the key pad. The manual, in Chinese and English, has been very poorly translated, and is a challenge in itself to understand. You will probably find a crib sheet such as the one given below useful. However, once the radio has been set up, you can keep it in memory mode and just use the up / down buttons to switch between channels. There is no need to touch the repeater shift once it has been set, nor the CTCSS functions once they have been programmed in to a channel.
|Jingtong Transceiver Key Functions|
|Lock keypad on/off||[SET] [*]||Start scan mode||[A] or [SET] |
|Direct frequency mode||[SET] ||Store frequency to memory||[B] <select channel> [C]|
|Memory mode (channels)||[SET] ||Store TX frequency to memory||[B] <select channel> [D]|
|Memory mode (frequencies)||[SET] |
|Set step size||[SET] |
|Repeater shift on/off||[SET] |
|Set repeater shift||[SET]  <enter shift>||Battery saver toggle (on when R showing)||[SET] [#]|
|CTCSS transmit on/off||[SET] |
|CTCSS squelch on/off||[SET] ||Clear all memories||Press [SET] while turning
on the transceiver
|Set CTCSS frequency||[SET]  <select code>|
Barry, VK5ZBQ, of the Adelaide Hills Amateur Radio Society, has created a manual for the JT-208/308 written in real English, in PDF format, which he has kindly allowed me to make available here.
The antenna connector is an SMA, but it is an SMA connector with a centre pin, the reverse of all the amateur band hand-helds I've seen. You may find a BNC adapter hard to obtain. Maplin didn't seem to list one, but I was kindly sent one by Dave, G3VFP, which allowed me to connect the radio to a power meter and an external antenna.
The output power is specified at 1.8W - 2.5W. My radio gave 2.4W output on a fully charged battery. There is no low power setting, and no connector for an external power supply.
Receive sensitivity appears to be only slightly less sensitive than my FT-817, but that is more than adequate for the power. The receive audio quality is very good considering the size of the speaker, and there is plenty of it - enough to be heard clearly on a noisy Chinese building site. There is no signal strength meter: the bar graph on the display is absent when the receiver is squelched, and full scale when a signal is present.
On the air
The receiver audio quality may be good, but the transmitted audio is another matter. Using the built-in microphone, it is bassy and muffled. This is a shame, as the radio itself turns out to be capable of producing extremely nice audio. Before buying, I was lucky enough to run across an Internet newsgroup posting mentioning the muffled audio, which also mentioned that the audio was much better using the accessory headset. I ordered one of these with the radio, and the result is a big improvement.
I have seen it mentioned that these Jingtong radios will accept Kenwood headsets (and presumably speaker/mics) but I can't verify this. The connector is a 2.1mm diameter stereo jack. The speaker is connected between the outer ring and the centre connector, and the mic, in series with the PTT, between the outer and the tip. I have wired up a cheap Watson speaker mic and it works fine.
The standard 11cm long rubber duck antenna is, unsurprisingly, not very efficient. So far, I haven't managed to make any contacts using it. I haven't tried any of the accessory antennas sold by the importer. They are cheap enough, however the telescopic whip that is offered is about three inches too short for a quarter wave at 145MHz.
An interesting possible use of this receiver, given its wide band coverage, is as a receiver for APT weather satellites. You couldn't buy a decent receive-only scanner for this price, and the receivers of the cheaper VHF scanners are unlikely to be this good. As with any VHF transceiver, the IF bandwidth is too narrow for optimum reception of APT weather satellites, but I have received usable images using my FT-817 and the filters in the Jingtong JT-208 don't seem to be quite so sharp. I haven't tried feeding the received audio into the computer to see what the results would be like, but I would expect it to be possible to decode it using WXtoImg which is more tolerant of narrow band signals than other APT decoding software.
Jim, VK5JST, has published a full description with photos of modifications to the JT-208 and JT-308 radios to improve the audio of the internal microphone by drilling a hole in the case. There are two ways to achieve this. One method requires disassembling the radio to avoid the risk of drilling into the mic element. N8TSZ tried it and wrote to say: "The radio fell apart along with the wiring in it. The wires and soldering are very, very fragile. No one should do this mod unless they want to throw out this radio." So try it at your own risk!
The second method involves marking the front panel and then drilling a hole from the outside, very carefully, by hand, to avoid drilling into the microphone element when the drill breaks through the plastic. This is the method I eventually plucked up the courage to use. Take a tip from me: use a new drill and hold it between the finger and thumb of one hand, resting on the radio, while you twist it between the finger and thumb of the other. Be patient! It might take 10 minutes of twisting the drill a few turns, inspecting the hole and blowing away the plastic shavings, but it's still less time than it would take to disassemble the radio. Be warned, it isn't as easy to sense when the drill is about to break through the plastic as the article says, so do proceed slowly and carefully to avoid damaging the microphone element.
Nevertheless, the result is extremely worthwhile, as the sound clips below will illustrate.
- Audio sample with built-in microphone, as supplied
- Audio sample with built-in microphone, after making the case mod
- Audio sample using the accessory headset
This modification transforms the audio such that you are not embarrassed to use the radio without the accessory headset or speaker moc.
The Jingtong JT-208 is a real bargain that's hard to resist. It's an inexpensive toy for the individual radio amateur, but it has obvious potential too for emergency communications groups, who could equip the entire group for a small cost. The radio is small, attractively styled and quite ruggedly built. It has all the features you need to operate on the 2m amateur band, and none of the frills you can manage without, which makes it nice and simple to use. The manual is not much use and the transmit audio could be better out of the box, but apart from that, it's hard to think of a reason not to buy one!
Note: Since this review was written, many people have emailed me with supplementary questions. I regret that I don't know anything more about this radio than I have written here, nor do I have any experience of the 70cm JT-308 version or other Chinese made VHF or UHF handhelds. I do not possess a circuit diagram for the radio and I am unable to assist with fault finding, nor can I advise on whether specific speaker mics or other accessories will work with this radio, because I haven't tried them.