Field and Bench Tests Determine the Best Full-Feature VHF Radio for About $175
Mid-priced VHF Radios Offer Top-notch Features.
Practical Sailor tested 10 new mid-priced marine VHF radios. All VHFs tested are waterproof, can be interfaced with a GPS, and have Digital Select Calling (DSC) capability. The marine radios were run through a series of tests including VHF transmitter power output, frequency accuracy and frequency stability, and receiver sensitivity to determine which was the best marine radio in the group. The display on each radio was rated based on the size and readability of the information, the quality of the information displayed, and the backlighting. The test radios had a lot to offer in the way of extras with everything from hailers to remote microphone capabilities and voice recorders. Ratings were based on overall performance and features. The VHF radios tested in this price category were the Cobra F75, Cobra F80, West Marine VHF550 (made by Uniden), West Marine VHF650 (made by Uniden), Raymarine 49, Raymarine 55, Standard Horizon Quest X GX1500S, Standard Horizon Matrix GX3000S, Icom M304, and Uniden UM425.
The technology behind a marine VHF radio transceiver’s basic capabilities has remained relativity unchanged for many years. Where you’ll find differences between the radios of yesteryear and those on the market today are in refinements—not so much in the transceiver area but to other parts of the radio—and feature enhancements that were unheard of just a few years ago.
Purchasing a mid-priced VHF today will not only get you a top-
quality transmitter and receiver, but also a receiver for Digital Select Calling (DSC) signals, more radio controls at the microphone, and superb waterproofing. Some even have a built-in hailer and the capability to connect a remote mic or record transmissions. You get lots of goodies with these newer radios, so with this test, we sought to identify those that offer the most for the least.
What We Tested
We last reported on fixed VHF radios in several articles that ran in 2005 and 2006. Our favorites in the mid-priced category (December 2005) were the Uniden UM525 and Icom M422.
For this year’s evaluation of mid-priced VHFs, we tested 10 new marine radios in the $145 to $220 price range from Cobra, Raymarine, Standard Horizon, West Marine, Icom, and Uniden.
Selecting a VHF in this price range will suit those with smaller budgets and those looking for a second VHF to mount in the cockpit. They cost about the same as most remote microphones (Practical Sailor, November 2007) but offer redundancy to a primary unit.
All of the radios we tested are waterproof and can be interfaced with a GPS. All also have DSC capability and are rated as Class D or Class SC101 devices. SC101 radios have only a single receiver listening to both voice communications and DSC digital data on channel 70. Class D radios have two separate receivers; one monitors voice channels, and another continuously monitors channel 70 for digital DSC calls. (See Value Guide, pages 16-17.)
In our opinion, GPS compatibility and DSC capability are imperative for the VHF to serve its most vital function: distress notification. Having a properly programmed Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (through DSC functions) means the Coast Guard can more easily identify the boat in a distress situation, and having a VHF-GPS interface means they can more easily and quickly locate the boat.
Future articles will take a look at the other categories of marine VHF radios, including expensive and budget fixed-mounts as well as affordable handheld units.
The Cobra F75 has a display sized for a more expensive radio, but its speaker is in the microphone handset, not the main casing.
The F75 provides for one-button operation of DSC distress call, quick select channels 16/9, memory scan, transmitter power, setting channel group, using tri-watch scan, and opening the menu page. Channel selection is made with up/down arrow buttons located on the radio front panel and the microphone. The handset also has a quick 16 or 9 selection button and up/down volume pushbuttons.
Menu-controlled functions include public address or hailer mode, weather alert, and DSC calling and information entry. Small rotary knobs set volume, power, and squelch levels.
The microphone connects to the radio front with a 6-pin metal PLT connector. In our opinion, this is a possible corrosion point, even though it has a plastic cover. However, this does allow for easy in-field replacement of the mic, which typically tends to take more of a beating than the radio body during regular use.
DSC reception can be turned off to avoid getting DSC calls, but users are still able to make a DSC call. This radio will send and receive DSC distress, individual, all ships, and position data, and can store 10 Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) numbers.
The F75 has two scan modes, memory scan for pre-programmed channels and tri-watch. Tri-watch monitors channel 16 and channel 9 and whatever channel the VHF was on when the scan was initiated.
The Cobra F75 also has a basic hailer that provides voice and radio reception over a public address horn.
The F75 displays channel numbers display in a large block style. It was the only radio tested that does not display channel comments; however, designated alpha channels are listed. When connected to a GPS unit, the radio will display date, time, and position.
Bottom line: The Cobra F75 had average performance ratings, but we prefer having the speaker in the main radio body.
The F80 couples a Cobra Marine exclusive, Rewind-Say-Again, with a powerful audio system and a large, well-utilized display.
The Rewind-Say-Again feature allows users to play back the previous 20 seconds of audio, so if you didn’t quite understand a transmission, you can rewind it and play it again. The F80 also offers a myriad of one-button operations, including: DSC distress call; quick select channel 16/9; memory scan; tri-watch scan; weather/voice channel toggle; and two favorite channel choices. Channel selection is with a rotary knob. The handset also has a quick 16/9 button and up/down channel and menu pushbuttons. Another mic button toggles between two selected channels.
The F80 has the same basic menu functions as the F75, but also has additional features like the rewind option. Two rotary knobs control power, volume, and squelch (except on the weather channels, which are set to always have open squelch). The F80 has a hailer function and can store up to 20 MMSI numbers.
Testers noted a wobbling sound in the F80’s carrier during transmitter tests, and after it was removed from the freezer, the carrier tone sounded scratchy. When input voltage falls below a certain level, transmitter power automatically switches to low power. Testers also noted it was difficult to plug the antenna into the jack on this particular radio.
A large screen provides tons of useful information. When connected to a GPS unit, the radio will display time and position.
Bottom line: One of the loudest radios in the test, the F80 offers some unique features at a low price.
The M304 is Icom’s entry-level fixed-mount VHF. It is compact and performs basic transmit, receive, and DSC operations without the fuss or expense of unwanted features.
One-button operations are limited to making a DSC distress call, selecting call channel or 16/9, channel scan, and dual watch (monitoring channel 16 and another channel) or tri-watch (monitoring 16 and other channels). Channel selection is made with pushbuttons on the VHF or mic.
Other functions include weather alert, customizing channel comments, and initiating AquaQuake (a low frequency tone used to clear water from the speaker). Small knobs control power, volume, and squelch. A low-battery warning scrolls across the screen when input voltage goes below 12.2 volts.
The M304 will send and receive distress, individual, and all ships calls, and position data. It can store up to 30 MMSI numbers and offers dual watch, tri-watch, normal, and priority channel scanning modes. Normal looks at each selected channel in order, while priority checks channel 16 between other selected channels.
Compared to previously tested Icom radios, the M304’s performance was slightly below par. It drifted slightly off frequency during cold temperature testing, but still remained well within industry and governmental standards.
The M304 has a small screen with large numbers. Icons for tag channels, transmit and receive, and channel comments also are displayed. The M304 is the only test VHF that does not display longitude/latitude data (even with a GPS interfaced).
Bottom line: Outside of one transceiver category, the M304 performed adequately in our testing.
The 49 is a newly redesigned entry-level VHF from marine electronics giant Raymarine.
The Ray 49 has one-button control for toggling between weather and voice channels, quick select channel 16/9, dual or tri-watch scanning, and menu selection. Rotary knobs control power, volume, squelch, and channel selection.
A low-battery message appears when input power drops below 12.2 volts. Increasing the voltage above 12.5 volts turns off the warning. Additional functions are menu operated. Some commonly used menu choices are local/distant receiver setting, channel group, transmitter power, and scan mode. The standard mic controls channel selection, scan, transmitter power, and quick 16/9 selection.
The Ray 49 has a phone book that will store up to 31 MMSI numbers. It will transmit and receive DSC distress, individual, all ships, and group calls as well as transmit and receive position data. The 49’s selectable scan modes are dual watch, tri-watch, all channels, and saved channels.
We found transmitter power output and frequency accuracy to be stable, but audio output was a bit weak: 85 dBA.
The Raymarine 49 has a small screen, but it displays icons, channel numbers, and four rows of data. Time and position can be displayed when connected to a GPS.
Bottom line: Overall performance was good, but audio performance was a little weak.
The Raymarine 55 is a miniaturized version of the company’s top-of-the-line Raymarine 218—the two even use the same owner’s manual—but the Ray 55 has fewer features and a significantly lower price tag.
The Ray 55 has an optional mic relocation kit; however, the standard radio mic cannot be disconnected. This radio can also connect to an optional remote microphone, the Raymic, and operate as part of an intercom system. The Raymic was a Recommended product in our most recent test of remote mics (November 2007).
The Ray 55 offers one-button control for toggling between weather and voice channels, quick selecting channel 16/9, and menu selection. Like the 49, the 55 has a low-battery message and rotary knobs for power, volume, and squelch.
The Ray 55 also has the same commonly used VHF menu choices and DSC functions as the 49, but its phone book will hold up to 50 MMSI numbers. It will scan channels using dual watch, tri-watch, all channels, saved channels, and priority modes. The radio will also store three favorite channels.
The Ray 55 we tested had just one glitch: Its transmitter frequency stability drifted off after it was subjected to cold extremes. It barely remained within specification. Once the radio warmed up, it returned to normal.
Raymarine Senior Marketing Manager Jim Hands explained that our test unit likely was "one of small handful of Ray 55s in which the reference crystals were slightly out of spec, thereby causing frequency drift due to short-term aging, and/or temperature instability." Hands said that the company has remedied the problem and that Raymarine is confident the Ray 55s will not have stability issues.
The Raymarine 55 displays large block numbers and customizable channel comments. It can be set to show a second standby channel side by side. Time, position, course, and speed can be displayed when the radio is connected to a GPS.
Bottom line: The Raymarine 55 offers good performance, user-friendly features, and a nice display, but it’s the most expensive of the bunch.
Standard Horizon Quest X
The GX1500S Quest X is a mid-level competitor in the Standard Horizon marine VHF line-up. It sports the largest display screen in its class.
Rotary knobs control volume, squelch, and channel selection. Dedicated pushbuttons adjust transmitter power and toggle between the last selected channel and 16/9 and between the last voice and weather channels. A single button push will also select dual watch, turn navigation data on or off, and initiate a DSC call. Channel selection and quick 16/9 can also be made with microphone controls.
The GX1500S can connect to an optional RAM CMP25 remote microphone or VH-310 handset, which were both among the top performers in the 2007 mic test. When connected to a remote mic, the radio will provide intercom service. Several scanning options and weather alert are accomplished via the menu. A low-battery warning appears when input power drops below 11.4 volts; increasing it to 12.4 volts turns the warning off.
The GX1500S will transmit and receive DSC distress, individual, all ships, and group calls, and send and receive position data. A DSC directory will store 40 names and their associated MMSI numbers. Scan modes include dual watch, memory, and priority.
The GX1500S has a huge screen for a radio in its class. It displays channel numbers in large block-style digits and four rows of information. When the radio is connected to a GPS unit, time, speed, course, and latitude/longitude are shown.
Bottom line: In our opinion, the GX1500S’s performance, huge display, and easy operation make it a great buy. It is a Practical Sailor Recommended product in this category.
Standard Horizon Matrix
The Standard Horizon GX3000S Matrix is a burly radio with a large footprint and an outsized display. (See photo, page 14.) At the high end of mid-priced radios, the Matrix has features usually found only on top-of-the-line units.
Rotary knobs adjust power, volume, squelch, and channel and menu selection. Dedicated pushbuttons allow you to toggle between the last selected channel and 16/9, switch between the last voice and weather channels, and change transmitter power. A single button push also controls dual watch, navigation data display, and DSC calling. Mic pushbuttons allow control of channel selection and quick 16/9.
Scan modes include dual watch, memory, and priority.
The GX3000S can connect with up to two optional remote microphones or handsets (RAM CMP25 or VH-310) and will provide intercom service. A low-battery warning appears when input power drops below 11.8 volts. Increasing the voltage above 12.5 turns it off.
The Matrix will transmit and receive DSC distress, individual, all ships, and group calls, and send and receive position data. A directory stores 40 names and their associated MMSI numbers.
The Matrix features a powerful 30-watt hailer/foghorn and has listen-back capability through a connected PA horn.
The Matrix’s large display screen shows block-style channel numbers and four rows of data. Channel comments and scan status are shown for every channel. When the radio is connected to a GPS, time, speed, course, and latitude-longitude are shown. The upper portion of the display is reserved for icons showing frequency group, transmitter power, transmit or receive, and satellite GPS reception.
Bottom line: The Standard Horizon Matrix earned our top pick with highly rated performance, a large display, easy operation, and multiple value-adding features.
The Uniden UM425 has some top-notch features like a hailer and battery-voltage monitor.
One-button control is available for making a DSC distress call, hailing, weather channels, menu, and quick 16/9. Rotary knobs adjust power, volume, and squelch. Channel selection is made using the up/down arrow keys on the front or microphone. Quick 16/9 and tri-watch channel scan can also be selected from the microphone.
Basic functions like channel scanning and making DSC calls are handled through menus. If input power drops below 12.2 volts, a warning is displayed and an alarm sounds. Input voltage must increase to 13 volts to end the warning. During our tests, this warning system had a few glitches as it came on and stayed on several times when the input voltage was at 13.8 volts.
The UM425 can transmit and receive DSC distress, individual, all ships, and group calls, and send and receive position data. It will store up to 20 names and MMSI numbers as well as 20 received calls. The UM425 has a 10-watt hailer that provides basic voice over a public address horn.
The most basic scan mode monitors a weather channel for alerts while operating the radio normally. Other scan modes are dual watch, tri-watch, and memory.
This UM425 displays large block letters and numbers along with channel comments. Transmitter power, channel group, memory scan, and transmit/receive messages are also displayed onscreen. When GPS data is input, date, time, position, course, and speed can be displayed by pressing the Select key.
Bottom line: The Uniden UM425 costs $160—a good price for a compact, feature-rich radio—but there are better options in this price range.
West Marine VHF550
Unlike most mid-level VHFs, the West Marine VHF550, made by Uniden, can connect to a wireless remote microphone. While remote mics can be a real bonus, we’re not yet sold on the wireless versions. The wireless Uniden WHAMx4 we tested in 2007 had battery life issues and was prone to static and glitches.
The VHF550 offers single-button selection of transmitter power (from 1 and 25 watts), hailer control, channel toggle between weather and voice, and the selection of menus, scan modes, channel groups, and a quick 16/9. Volume and squelch are controlled with knobs, while channel selection is via pushbuttons. Scan modes available are dual and triple watch, and memory.
DSC calling is handled through a menu navigated using arrow keys. This can be cumbersome. Some of the menu names and displayed data are cryptic enough to require the manual for deciphering.
The VHF550 can make DSC distress, individual, all ships, and group calls, and send and receive position data. It will store up to 20 names and MMSI numbers and received calls.
The VHF550 has a basic hailer that provides 10 watts of output power. That’s more than enough for short-range communications.
Channel numbers are shown in block numbers above the channel comment. One thing missing is Alpha channel display. When connected to a GPS, date, time, position, course, and speed are scrolled onscreen.
Bottom line: Priced about $150, the West Marine VHF550 was an average performer, but we found the menus less than user-friendly.
West Marine VHF650
Also made by Uniden, the West Marine VHF650 features a basic hailer and battery-voltage monitor.
One-button control is available for the hailer, weather channels, menus, and quick 16 selection. Volume and squelch are controlled with knobs, and channel selection is made with up/down arrow keys. Interfaced with a GPS, the radio displays date, time, position, course, and speed. DSC calls are handled through menus.
A low-battery warning sounds and shows a message when input power drops below 12.7 volts. Increasing the input voltage above 13 volts terminates the warning.
This radio can make distress, individual, all ships, and group calls, and send and receive position data. It will store up to 20 names and MMSI numbers as well as 20 received calls.
The VHF650 offers weather channel, dual and triple watch, and memory scanning modes. All are controlled via menus and a single front-panel button. Its hailer provides 10 watts of output power.
Bottom line: We found the West Marine VHF650 for $139, a good price for this fully equipped compact radio. It gets the Budget Buy nod.
Our large group of mid-priced marine VHF radios had a lot to offer in the way of extras with everything from a hailer to a voice recording device available in one or more radios. Still, we made our choices in this group based on overall performance first and then considered added features.
The Standard Horizon GX3000S is near the upper end of the price range, but the added features outweigh the extra cost. However, if you don’t need a hailer or the ability to hook up multiple remote mics, you may want to opt for the less-expensive Standard Horizon GX1500S or the Budget Buy West Marine VHF650.
The GX3000S easily tops the Icom M422, our pick in the 2005 test of mid-priced VHFs; the M422 lacks a powerful hailer and Class D rating. The Best Buy in that test, Uniden UM525, is still competitive in this category, but it doesn’t top the GX3000S.