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Vintage Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Kit
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Vintage Heathkit HW−5400 HF SSB Kit Winter 1983-84 Catalog - RF Cafe Cool Product

Vintage HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver in the Winter 1983-84 Heathkit catalog.

Attn: Website visitor Paul A., from Long Island, NY, sent some notes on his experience building and improving the HW-5400 back in the 1970s.

This vintage Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver kit showed up on eBay. I have been saving the images of these unbuilt kits in order to preserve the history. The constantly growing list is at the lower right. The HW-5400 covers the 80- through 10-meter bands as well as the 10 MHz WWV frequency reference signal and the WARC bands. A video tour is posted below. A Web search on the Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver shows mixed reviews. Some people loved it, and others thought it was the worst transceiver Heathkit ever put out. Of course that's the way it is with most things. In the case of kits, a lot depends on the skill of the builder, because even the most proficient operator and assembler of system level parts is not necessarily a great builder and/or tuner.

The first instance I could find for HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver being offered for sale was in the Winter 1983-84 Heathkit catalog (p93), at a cost of $499.95 ($1518.46 in 2023 money per the BLS). The external power supply costs an extra $1.99.95, and the Frequency Entry Keypad would set you back an additional $59.95.

From the Winter 1983-84 Heathkit catalog:

The Heathkit HW-5400 Synthesized HF SSB/CW Transceiver is a price-performance triumph

Now only $499.95

  • Save $150 more on the world's most fascinating rig and experience performance others only dream of
  • PLL-synthesized stability with crystal accuracy
  • Patented 2-speed tuning knob with 50 Hz resolution
  • Digital display with direct keypad frequency entry, two memories per band and mode/status symbols

The world's first and only kit-form synthesized HF Transceiver: For every ham who dreams of owning the finest quality, multi-purpose equipment they can "get their hands on." Heath has created a special new assemble-it-yourself rig.

A long overdue standard of price-performance payback: Heath breaks the cost barrier to having more sophisticated, dependable talk power and microtech flexibility for use while at home, in the field or on the road. The compact HW-5400 Synthesized Transceiver is a marvel of modern kit-form engineering design. Controlled and monitored by a custom 8-bit microprocessor, it yields quick-change versatility in adapting to uncertain band conditions. From the moment it arrives, you start an interfacing experience that will put the original sense of thrill, skill and adventure back into Amateur Radio.

Three modes, eight bands and plenty of power from HF excitement: The HW-5400 operates in USB, LSB, and CW on 80-10 meters with automatic sideband selection. Completely solid-state and broadbanded, it has full break-in (QSK) for proficient CW ops, sixteen memories, power supply activation at the transceiver panel, defeatable amplifier relay for quiet keying, maximum shielding on the PA, reverse and over-voltage protection as well as high VSWR forward power cutback circuitry for the cool-running finals.

The HW-5400's high-resolution tuning system employs a dual-speed technique so uniquely practical and efficient, Heath has applied for patent rights. An infrared optical shaft encoder and two rotation holes control the scan speed. One uses a capacitive-touch metallic insert so you can rapidly scan a band in 1 kHz increments, while tuning with the other lets you pick out closely-packed calls for more QSOs over a narrow frequency range at 50 Hz per step.

Beats the QRM every time: A tremendously versatile Split-Memory Access function lets you review and change the transmit frequency while in receive without missing a single word or fragment of code from the station in contact.

Total Transceiver status at a glance: Seven mode and function symbols left of the frequency display inform you of current mode, T/R status, split operation, split-access memory handling, and whether the transmit frequency is outside the band edge. They can be set to one of three brightness levels. 

Half the controls on most transceivers, twice the performance of many: The HW-5400 front panel is clean and uncluttered, with all functions marked for easy operation. Three dual-concentric knobs command every aspect of signal isolation and maintenance. Essential vox and sidetone controls are located behind the nameplate, which flips open at your touch.

More microprocessor ingenuity: With the inexpensive HWA-5400-3 Keypad option wired in, you've got extra pushbutton power and signal-capturing advantage. It allows instantly synthesized direct QSY to any position in the band, and permits fast DX, contest and net work when using the Split-Memory function. This cursor-controlled, single-digit, random or sequential access to any frequency and 50 Hz PLL accuracy improves contact agility.

Matched to this Transceiver, the HWA-5400-1 Power Supply/Speaker/Digital Clock provides a well-regulated, 13.8 volt source of DC power.

As you build the 5400 kits circuit by circuit, you'll learn their engineering details with hands-on understanding. The fully illustrated, step-by-step manual guides you all the way through assembly.

For the price- and quality-conscious ham who wants the greater pride, knowledge and performance only hand-crafted gear can provide, these kits offer the highest value fro your hamshack dollar.

With the knowledge you gain to keep it performing at peak efficiency, the HW-5400 is the only rig to make real the dream of every amateur - a greater, more worthwhile return in pleasurable, year-to-year results on a premium investment. The new HW-5400. If you've got the time, this is the Transceiver!

 Heathkit HW−8 QRP Transceiver Front & Rear Panels - RF Cafe

 Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Carton of Packaged Components.
(eBay photo) 

Map of Heathkit HW−5400 HF SSB Transceiver Carton Contents - RF Cafe 

Map of Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Carton Contents.
(eBay photo)

Heathkit HW−5400 HF SSB Transceiver Components Unpackaged and Arranged - RF Cafe

Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Components Unpackaged and Arranged.
(eBay photo) 

Heathkit HW−5400 HF SSB Transceiver Carton Shipping Label (c1985) - RF Cafe 

Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Carton Shipping Label (c1985)

Heathkit Winter 1983-84 Catalog Cover (wolrdradiohistory.com) - RF Cafe

Heathkit Winter 1983-83 Catalog Cover

HW−5400 HF SSB Transceiver Documentation - RF Cafe

 Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver Documentation
Download the Heathkit HW-8 QRP Transceiver manual here.
(eBay photo) 

Heathkit HW-5400 HF SSB Transceiver video by Bob Frick

Heathkit products were well known for the completeness of its instruction manuals, with clearly illustrated instructions. During the writing and editing process, Heathkit employees were given pre-production kits to take home and build, while annotating any difficulties or errors encountered. Doing so helped minimize the situation where the writer inadvertently assumes his own familiarity with the process is shared by the customer. Having built a few Heathkit products myself in the 1970s when I did not have a lot of experience with electronics assembly, I can attest to the user friendliness of the instructions. Heathkit still sells many of its vintage manuals for around $15, which is what you would pay on eBay.

Contact Info

Heath Company (Heathkit)
Operations: PO Box 15, Ottsville, PA 18942
R&D/Mfg: PO Box 3115, Santa Cruz CA 95063
Phone: +1 (831) 480-4368
E-Mail: info.2015@2015.heath.company

April 22, 2024 Update: This good bit of personal insight into the Heathkit HW-5400 transceiver was offered by website visitor Paul A., of Long Island, New York. Lots of Heathkit builders made modifications, some necessary to achieve advertised performance, and others for improved performance. Paul's efforts are quite impressive. I made the comment that since Heathkit products were not built and tested in-house in large volumes, they did not have the benefit of feedback on performance of systems and components that would otherwise be gained from a production line. Prior to making new products available, Heathkit designers had a number of fellow employees build the kits at home using parts and instructions intended for customers. Changes were made based on that information, but that is nowhere near the quality of feedback provided on an assembly line.

Hi Kirt,

Back in November of 2023 you had an article about the Heathkit HW5400. It included some photos of an unbuilt kit. This brought back many memories. I'm the original owner of an HW5400 that I purchased in 1985 from the Heathkit store in Northern Virginia. I bought the transceiver, speaker/power supply, keypad and the accessory IF filter. I had no idea what was in store for me!

The transceiver worked the first time I turned it on, but after putting it on the air, I began to get reports of distorted or unnatural transmit audio. Thus began a two year long project to fix the bad audio. After many hours of measurements (some made with circuit boards removed and taken to the lab at work), I realized that the problems were design issues not failed components. Several of the problematic circuits already had design changes made by Heathkit (that didn't correct the problem) with update kits supplied in the box. I made many design changes and ultimately wrote them up as an article for QST. It was printed in the early 90's as a long "Hints and Kinks" article, instructing the reader how to make improvements to the rig.

Here are some of the problems the rig had:

1. Both IF crystal filters were very poorly impedance matched resulting in over 10 dB of very peaky ripple. An easy fix. My hand-calculated component values worked with no further adjustment needed. This one change made a huge difference in the transmit audio. I suspect that Heath changed filter suppliers and didn't check to see if the matching networks needed to be updated.

2. Heath used MC1496 balanced modulator chips in the radio. I was very familiar with these parts as I used the MIL version at work (MC1596). Heath engineers used the wrong amplitudes for carrier injection and modulation. I made the necessary changes needed to correct the levels, and the TX distortion was reduced significantly.

3. The Transmit ALC circuit time constants allowed the PA to be too easily overdriven. I changed the circuitry to control the PA drive based on the peak RF level. This resulted in somewhat lower average power readings displayed on a wattmeter when talking, but it was now very difficult to overdrive the PA.

4. I changed the Receive AGC time constant for a slower decay time on SSB signals. This made received audio much smoother a lot more pleasant. I also added an AGC "Dump" circuit that would briefly switch to a short time constant to provide a better transition when switching between TX and RX.

5. I added an amplifier to the LO port of a Doubly Balanced Mixer in the Transmit path. In the Heath design, the LO drive was marginal and the RF input was very strong, and the result was distortion. Another easy fix. I used a sample amplifier that I got from an Avantek rep, mounted on a small circuit board that they gave to engineers for evaluation of their parts.

All of these changes made the HW5400 very pleasant to use. I still have it as a backup HF rig. A 1998 vintage Yaesu FT920 is my primary rig.

I sometimes wondered why some of these radios didn't sound bad yet others did. I attributed some of this to poorly designed discrete circuits that were sensitive to transistor parameters. I ran into this a few times in the HW5400.

One weak spot remains in the HW5400, and that is the PLL. It sometimes loses lock on the higher bands. The culprit is a circuit that functions as either an amplifier or a multiplier depending upon the band selected. A few years ago, I bought some Mini-Circuits frequency doublers to upgrade that circuit. I guess this will be a future project for me when I retire.

I was a long time Heathkit builder, starting with a GR-64 shortwave receiver that I built when I was an early teenager (spending my summer job paychecks). Most of the kits I built worked well. I think the designers of Ham equipment at Heath were an older bunch of engineers who were much more comfortable with tubes than IC's and transistors. Older radios such as the the HW-101 and the SB series were very decent performers in their day. When I bought the HW-5400, I really expected that it would be an evolution of their better tube radios from the 70's, but it was a very complex kit that needed more refinement before being released for sale.

Yes, there are not many kits today. It seems like the tinkerers and builders now buy Arduino or Raspberry-Pi single board computers and build projects around them. Several years ago, someone tried to bring Heathkit back into the marketplace and offered a couple of simple kits. I don't know what became of that company. If they are still around, I wish them luck.


73  Paul A., Long Island, NY



Posted November 27, 2023

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