Features December 1, 1998 Issue

Marine Electronics:
SEA 159, Icom M45 and M49 Are Top Fixed-Mount VHF Radios

Our tests in the lab and on the water find that many of the lower-cost radios suffer from intermodulation interference. The Furuno FM 2710 was particularly disappointing.

What with all the current interest in handheld GPS and LCD radar, it’s easy to forget that most fundamental and important piece of marine electronics—the VHF radio. Even if you have a single-sideband radio (and most coastal sailors don’t), a VHF radio is the most practical way to communicate with shore facilities, other boats (including ships) and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The last time we evaluated fixed-mount VHF radios—the February 1 and July 15, 1997 issues—we divided them into low-end and high-end models ($250 was the price point). Of the lower cost models, we picked the Apelco 8500 and 4500 and among high-end radios we favored the Icom IC-M59. The last test of handheld VHFs was in March 1998, where we gave the thumb’s up to the submersible Icom IC-M1 and Uniden HH-940.

For this year’s report, we obtained 10 radios ranging in discount price from $140 to $600.

How We Tested
Our 10 25-watt VHF sets were tested on the bench, in downtown harbors where VHF land and marine radio channels are always busy, and 10 miles out at sea.

We first compared the manufacturers’ specifications to our GMDSS (Global Marine Distress Safety System) ship inspection test equipment in the lab, using varying voltages and different antenna selections. They were then taken to several commercial ports where on-channel receive capabilities could be judged by ear. Performance was compared to what we found in the radio lab.

Finally, all of the equipment was taken out to sea and re-tested for transmit and receive capabilities to a distant shore-side calibration station, call sign WMD. This private coast station is FCC-authorized to transmit to and receive from our ship station for our tests.

Here’s what we looked at:

VHF Channel Capabilities. All of the models tested are synthesized for all-channel USA, Canada and international transmit and receive. But we found some of the small, inexpensive sets actually had more VHF channels than the larger, more expensive units. Some of these channels could be used legally in specific harbors, yet some channels were encoded for transmit and receive specifically reserved for other radio services, like the police radio service.

Modes. All of the units transmitted narrow-band FM, but some also can handle digital selective calling (DSC) add-on boards. Some, but not all, radios tested included the weather alert mode, which we think is important.

Power Supply Requirement. VHFs are most efficient at 13.8 volts DC. To find out what happens when the radio must transmit with a low or dead battery, we also tested them at 11VDC. Some units nicely filtered out alternator whine, while others carried the whistle through on transmit. We also looked at the amount of current each set would pull at maximum power output as well as on receive at moderate volume. All sets lost 4 watts output due to their small power cables!

Frequency Stability. We found each set tested closer than the required specs, but to see if frequency stability is a problem when voltage varies, we tested for it.

Dimensions and Weight. Do big VHFs put out more power for a longer period? Do they have better receivers with more capability to cancel out interference? In fact, some bigger VHF radios include more circuits to help minimize out-of-band transmissions.

Transmit Power. Almost all of the equipment put out at least 23 watts, and some made it to 25 watts, the FCC limit. We tested to learn how long they continued to put out this amount of power under long transmissions, and how hot they got when keyed down for a 1-minute fishing report.

Microphone. While the manufacturer’s specs may list a microphone’s impedance, we would rather know which units have the longest and best quality microphone cord, and the most features in the mike, such as channel changing, remote readout, volume and squelch, and the capabilities to detach the microphone in case the original one gets damaged.

The Receiver. The specs may show various levels of “conversion” to move sensitive receiver mixes out of the way to accommodate weak and strong incoming signals, and while sensitivity in microvolts and adjacent channel selectivity in decibels appears also in the specs, nothing beats testing a radio on a big 9 dB gain antenna at a busy commercial port to see how well the set receives on-channel marine calls and rejects nuisance pager tones.

Audio Output Power. Audio loudness and clarity are important, especially with the engine running. We found actually listening to the speaker much more meaningful than reading lab-measured power output.

Features. Each set has its own complement of scanning, priority, tag-channel, hot-channel and favorite-channel programming—so many features that we wondered whether the average owner would spend the time programming his radio to use all of them. We think scanning and priority features are good and necessary, but only if you can figure out how to use them without always checking the manual.

Ease of Operation. In the event of an emergency, we think it’s important for persons unfamiliar with VHF to be able to operate the radio. Can you turn the set on and quickly get to distress Channel 16? Is it easy to change channel? How easy is it to see the display, and is it simple or tough to crank the volume up and down? We looked for intuitive operations.

Si-Tex Ultima
We very much liked the three-knob approach to volume, squelch and channel changing on this new micro-size radio. One can operate the radio without having to push buttons. Most of our reviewers preferred knobs over buttons, which allows fast-channel changing.

Both the LCD display as well as the translucent keypads are back-lit for nighttime use.

Audio output was judged outstanding—very loud and crisp. The Si-Tex can be heard over the roar of engines.

We judged the LCD channel readout, however, as just adequate; the background is not pure silver or white, so the black numbers don’t stand out.

The Si-Tex Ultima did great at sea, but in busy ports its very sensitive receiver began to pick up pager tones and out-of-band signals. This is a rather common problem with extremely small VHFs because they don’t have enough room to incorporate helical resonators on the inside. About the only way to minimize this problem is to switch to a smaller, low-gain VHF antenna when entering a busy port.

The microphone has a nice feel to it, along with up-and-down channel buttons that make the radio beep each time they are depressed. However, the microphone cord is so short that the radio must be mounted almost where you plan to use the mike.

The 16-gauge wire was judged too light if you plan to get full power out of the radio. Cutting off the excess wire will help. With 13.8 volts, the Si-Tex easily puts out 25 watts.

Bottom Line: The Ultima is a good low-cost, compact VHF. But if you plan to use this equipment in busy harbors, we would not recommend it because of its extra-sensitive receiver.

Shakespeare SE2001EX
The new styling of the 2001 now matches the Shakespeare 2510.

The SE2001EX is totally knobless, which makes it waterproof. Everything is push-button. Squelch is automatic and may also be manually adjusted via a push-button. We found the radio worked very well in the manual squelch setting of 4 when in a busy harbor. Anything less than that and out-of-band intermodulation began to creep in over the speaker circuit. Volume is push-button up to a maximum setting of 19 on the LCD display, but any more volume than 15 gets distorted. The loudest volume is still not as loud as the Si-Tex Ultima.

Our reviewers liked the waterproof microphone with its up-and-down channel-changing buttons on the face. The curly cord is smaller than the others, yet is extremely long. The microphone has a nice feel to it with a rubber push-to-talk button and rubber up-and-down buttons.

Power output at 13V and quality of modulation was excellent. At low voltages it still had adequate power out, but only when the power cable was shortened. Shakespeare was the only maker to provide a red and black power cable with silver-tinned copper wires, which reduces corrosion. They also give you a pair of healthy wires for an external speaker connection.

The Shakespeare SE2001EX has a convenient dual-watch feature that scans between Channel 16 or 9 and your regular working channel. When the signal appears, quickly press the push-to-talk key and this cancels the dual-watch scanning so you may continue to monitor the activity. There was a half-second delay between the time you push the microphone button and when the unit accepts the command and begins transmitting. A quick press of the microphone instantly stops the scanning, and it also prevents the signal from coming out of your radio if you do it fast enough. This we felt was an important safety feature in order to prevent accidentally transmitting over an important message that your scanner finds.

Bottom Line: We like the Shakespeare 2001’s new “EX” styling, but prefer knobs to push-buttons. The radio sounds good on transmit reports from other vessels, so we recommend it for owners looking for value, who also require a waterproof mike.

Alinco DR-MA1
You probably don’t recognize the name Alinco, but this is a well-respected ham radio company which has just entered the VHF marine transceiver market. Its first VHF, the MA1, is a good performer, but we have a few criticisms. We knew this was a fresh design because it was the only set of the 10 that locked out DSC data Channel 70 for voice operation.

Like the Icom, this radio also indicates a “busy” channel.

Volume and squelch have big knobs, and for channel changing a set of push-buttons that beep when pressed. We prefer a channel-changing knob. Volume was judged adequate, but beyond the three-quarters setting it becomes slightly distorted.

We couldn’t locate an LCD back-light switch, but the factory assures us it will be back-lit. This means the back-light is constantly on and the LCD becomes visible after the sun sets. But on our test unit, the back-light was not seen.

The transmitter produced 19 watts output, but a dip in voltage caused it to fall to 14 watts (on the long cable supplied), where it held steady at 14 watts.

It also has the dual-watch feature, weather alert, Channel 16 or Channel 9 button, and international mode capability. The white plastic microphone is stylish, but lacked up-and-down channel-changing buttons. We were surprised they left this out, but SEA and Furuno did, too.

Channels 2 and 4 are omitted. With Channel 3 is the note, “Not for use by the general public in U.S. waters.” After all, you don’t want to end up talking ship-to-ship on a police radio frequency! For Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel, all of the government channels are included, and we note that Channel 88 is set for simplex ship-to-ship for Great Lakes, not for marine telephone use.

Bottom Line: The Alinco MA1, at $169, is a good “first radio” for the new boat operator who wants a simple, reliable set.

SEA 156
This is a commercial boat VHF that we included in the test to serve as our benchmark for receiver selectivity. In previous sea trials, it was the only equipment that had enough internal filters to lock out interference from nearby land-mobile paging transmitters. Because the equipment is physically large, it has enough room on the inside for these added filter networks.

The first thing you notice about the SEA 156 is the enormous volume output from the big front-mounted speaker. If you need the loudest radio, this is it!

We were surprised that there is no “busy” indicator on the LCD display showing channel occupancy. The busy indicator is important because you might have the volume down and not know it.

The SEA 156 is knobless, so all adjustments must be made via the front panel keypad.

It is a full-featured VHF with priority, scanning pre-memorized channels, dual-watch, scanning all channels, memory channel function and access to any marine VHF channel by just pressing the keypad number twice. If you want to go from Channel 8A to Channel 12, just press 1-2 and you are there.

Power output was right at the legal limit, and it continued to be adequate all the way down to 11 volts. Because this radio is designed for compulsory-equipped commercial boat applications, it has all of the necessary features needed for commercial boat operation.

Bottom Line: The SEA 156 is popular equipment among Coast Guard Auxiliary members because of its superb receiver that rejects in-harbor interference. Commercial boat operators like this unit for its extra loud audio, and its ability to hold power output in low-battery situations. We rate the SEA 156 at the top of the list, but you will pay dearly—$600.

Icom IC-M59
If you’ve ever wondered what an extra $100 buys in a VHF, the IC-M59 showed us in a big way. First, the IC-M59 has an extremely large back-lit LCD channel display. When the channel is occupied, a “busy” icon comes up on the screen (the Si-Tex and Shakespeare had no active channel indicator). The volume was extremely loud, and it did not distort.

The M59 operates on 61 U.S. channels, 57 Canadian channels and 57 international channels. You get into and out of the international mode by pushing the CH/WX button.

Most of the time everyone will operate the equipment in the U.S. mode. If you’re on Channel 22, you are really on Channel 22A, the U.S. Coast Guard liaison frequency. But if you cruise internationally or up in Canada, you may wish to switch out of the “A” mode, and go to Channel 22 international, a duplex channel where the radio receiver splits up 4.6 MHz.

Most interesting is what Icom does with public correspondence Channels 84 through 88. Unlike the other radios tested, they include 84A, 85A, 86A, 87A and 88A in the U.S. mode, allowing the radio to operate simplex on the marine telephone input channels. This does two things; it allows you to listen to the ship side of a telephone call by just switching one channel up, and it also leads to ship-to-ship communications on a telephone input channel, causing that telephone channel to become jammed with unauthorized ship-to-ship traffic (except for Channel 88A that may be used for bridge-to-bridge communications on the Great Lakes). But FCC rule 80.373 has no provision for U.S. simplex operation (ship-to-ship, same frequency) on public correspondence Channels 84 through 87. We also found this radio capable of transmitting on other U.S. channels not permitted by the rules, so be careful.

The M59 is a power house, holding 20 watts output, even at lower voltages. It also incorporates the mandatory time-out timer in case the mike gets accidentally continuously keyed. The mike feels great, and has both up-and-down buttons, as well as a button for controlling high- and low-power output.

Of course, scanning, tag-channel, instant Channel 16 and 9, priority, dual-watch, tri-watch and a host of other channel-scanning features are included. It is also capable of digital selective calling (DSC), which will soon become mandatory for commercial shipping. It can also take a scrambler. A factory-authorized technician must install the UX-120 DSC board, as well as the UT-79 voice scrambler board. The DSC will tie into your on-board GPS via the OPC-457 NMEA data cable.

Once this equipment is up and running in the DSC mode on VHF Channel 70, it can send and receive distress calls, send and receive individual calls, and even change channels to a working frequency when it accepts an incoming call from another DSC-equipped station.

Bottom Line: We consider the IC-M59, even with some of those questionable “extra” channels, as an exceptional value in the mid-$200 market. Highly recommended.

Icom IC-M45
This is a middle-priced VHF with commercial-quality features that include a large LCD display, “busy” channel icon, memory channels, scan channels, weather alert, dual channels and all of the extras you would expect on a more expensive VHF.

The microphone has a solid feel, and comes with up-and-down buttons as well as an additional button for high and low power. It looks identical to the mike on the M59.

Unlike the slightly more expensive M59, the M45 leaves out non-U.S. Channels 2A and 4A, with a note in the instruction manual that reads, “Due to recent FCC regulation changes, Channels 2A, 4A, 60A, and 62A are not available for U.S. operations.” Changes? Maybe the word “enforcement” would be better!

But the public correspondence channels in the 80s also include simplex ship-to-ship. Two boats communicating on USA (as indicated on the Icom) Channel 85A will really cause problems to the MariTel marine operator service, and the two ships would not know they were causing interference because they’d be inadvertently transmitting on the input frequency.

Volume output on the M45 was terrific with almost no distortion. Power output was 25 watts and receiver selectivity was light years ahead of the least expensive VHFs. This radio really punches out a big signal, and has the ability to filter out noise and pull in the weak signals. Price is a reasonable $199.

Bottom Line: We highly recommend the Icom M45 for both pleasure boats as well as light commercial boat applications.

Furuno FM2710
When you see the name Furuno, you immediately think of commercial-quality marine electronics. Furuno calls its VHF 2710 a “high performance” radio “to meet the boater’s stringent demands for a reliable radio communications” at “low cost.” After testing, we think the FM2710 is a medium-priced unit that performed no better than the low-cost Alinco, Si-Tex or Shakespeare.

The small LCD display is rather thin and lacks contrast. There is a “busy” icon. Volume was judged as fair; any setting above middle was distorted. Even at low volume settings, the receiver “crackled” without the normal, smooth-sounding white noise. In fact, the Furuno receiver sounded much like the Alinco receiver with rough audio on any unused channels. Although there was a relatively nice channel-changing knob on the front, we were surprised that there was none on the microphone.

In the harbor, the Furuno picked up plenty of out-of-band interference. In fact, the interference sometimes drowned out distant ship stations. Even in the test lab, the most power we could squeeze out of the FM2710 was 18 watts at normal voltage input. The back-lighting was dim in the darkened cabin, which made the LCD even harder to read than it already was.

Bottom Line: We were surprised that Furuno could not come up with a solid 25-watt VHF transceiver. We do not recommend this radio.

Apelco 5200
This is a loud radio with knobs for volume and squelch and up-and-down buttons for channel changing. There also are buttons on the unique-looking microphone, as well as a 16+ that allows selection of another hailing frequency in areas where Channel 9 is used.

The LCD panel is back-lit for nighttime use, and the numbers are relatively easy to see in any lighting condition. The unit puts out adequate power under normal and low-voltage conditions, and the receiver was better than most in not picking up police calls, pager tones and other interference.

We tested the radio for weather alert during periods of thunderstorm activity and it sounded off when it was supposed to. Keep in mind that weather alert only works if you are scanning the weather channels, and is not broadcast on Channel 16.

Bottom Line: The Apelco 5200 is a good value at $189.

Apelco 4500+
The 4500+ sells for about $30 less than the 5200 and works almost as well. Volume has a lot more bass to it, but isn’t quite as loud. Receiver selectivity was about the same, only now and then picking up pager calls.

Power output was not as good as the Apelco 5200. The 4500 puts out about 23 watts out at normal voltage (with the long cord supplied), and less than 19 watts out when voltage was cut to 11. We checked the time-out timer transmit circuitry, and sure enough, after about 4-1/2 minutes of continuous transmitting into a non-radiating dummy load, the unit automatically cycled off with some beeps.

Bottom Line: There are no surprises with the mid-quality Apelco radios; they perform well.

Standard Horizon Nova+
We really like the LCD display on the Horizon Nova. The background is quite bright and the numbers are well-defined.

Standard has improved its receiver to minimize in-harbor pager interference. In past trials, many Standard radios were actually too sensitive in the harbor.

Volume output from the Nova speaker was judged barely adequate. Because volume also comes out of the microphone, hold it to your ear if you need more help hearing. The microphone also has up-and-down channel-changing buttons, plus another button that indicates “PWR UP”. At first we didn’t know if this button turned the radio on and off. Finally we discovered it was for increasing the power level on a low-power output channel. Some VHF channels are designated low power, and all of the radios tested dutifully went to the low-power position automatically. The Nova feature lets you override power selection in an emergency.

The Nova was a little shy on power output, but the reason is the same as for all of the other radios which couldn’t get to 25 watts—small power leads.

We found the scan feature on the Horizon faster than any of the other scanning radios. This we liked a lot. If you’re into scanning fishing channels, you won’t miss the activity when the unit goes into the fast-scan mode. We also liked the very bright back-lit LCD display; in the shade, it accentuates the channel readout. You also get two personal favorite channel slots, labeled A and B.

But what we liked best about the Horizon is its optional, add-on RAM microphone system. This puts all of the radio operating controls in one big microphone that feels just right in your hand. The RAM microphone shows the channel, channel “busy” indicator, and its push-buttons are identical to the those on the radio. Instead of a power button, volume and squelch control knob, these three functions are accessed by arrow buttons on the top of the microphone. And if the microphone is mounted a long way from the radio, you can access the intercom mode, too. This allows you to place the radio down below and the microphone in the cockpit. The mike is submersible to half a fathom. The remote mike has a big, long, loose, coiled cord that plugs into a massive watertight connection.

The microphone has its own volume control. If you up the volume on the mike, it doesn’t change the volume on the actual radio.

Bottom Line: We found the Standard Horizon Nova+, with or without the clever RAM microphone, an exceptional value. We recommend buying the remote access mike for additional VHF capabilities. It is, however, easily scratched.

After weeks of lab testing, we have come to the conclusion that VHF transmit capabilities are all about the same. Twenty to 25 watts output from a little $139 VHF sounds exactly like 25 watts output from the most expensive GMDSS commercial-grade VHF radios. We suggest cutting off excess power cable to add more power output.

We found big differences, however, in the receivers. The SEA 156 was the absolute best for intermodulation interference, but the two Icoms came in a close second. Standard has improved its receivers, and the least expensive radios, like Si-Tex, Shakespeare and Alinco, are adequate at sea and pretty good in the harbor. Still, the less you spend on a VHF, the more prone the receiver is to out-of-band interference. Another solution is to buy accessory filters for the antenna jack of your present VHF to help minimize major interference.

We were most surprised by the poor performance of the Furuno, which seems intended for the entry-level user. Other Furuno products we have tested are usually very good.

Most refreshing was Standard’s remote-access microphone; you can do everything on it that you can do on the main VHF.

We also applaud Icom for preparing boat owners for the inevitable DSC connection. Some of the other radios may have this feature, too, but Icom seems to be making the most out of their available board sets, which can be installed by any licensed technician.

Contacts- Alinco, 438 Amapola Ave., Lot 130, Torrence, CA 90501; 310/618-8616. Apelco, 676 Island Pond Rd., Manchester, NH 03109-5420. Furuno U.S.A., 271 Harbor Way, South San Francisco, CA 94080; 415/873-9393. Icom America, 2380 116th Ave. NE, Bellevue, WA 98004; 425/454-8155. Standard Communications, PO Box 92151, Los Angeles, CA 90009-2151; 310/532-5300. Shakespeare, PO Box 733, Newberry, SC 29108; 803/276-5504. Si-Tex, 11001 Roosevelt Blvd., St. Petersburg, FL 33716; 813/576-5734.

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