Features March 1, 1998 Issue

VHF Handhelds: Icom M-1 and Uniden HH-940 Our Top Picks

In our review of 10 handheld radios, we figure you might as well buy a submersible because their prices are now much lower. Among non-submersibles we like the flip-phone-style SMR Sea Lab 5100 and the Standard HX-150S and HX-255 because they also take alkalines.

It has been several years since we’ve done a general review of handheld VHF radios. We did, however, review waterproof models in the November 15, 1996 issue.

Thanks to FCC regulations, all marine VHF transceivers must meet minimum standards in certain areas. In our testing, we found no units that had poor quality reception. Nevertheless, we found significant differences between the 10 radios we tested that, depending on your needs, could make you choose one model over another.

What We Looked For
Our testing included both bench and on-the-water trials. In the lab, each set was tested for power output into a 50-ohm Bird Model 43 wattmeter and a 0-5 watt VHF element. Voltage and current readings were read off of a Tektronix DMM-254 digital multimeter. Transmitter deviation and spectral purity were measured with an IFR 1200 service monitor, and receiver sensitivity was also measured with this same equipment.

Instead of using the service monitor to inject adjacent channel signals to determine handheld receiver selectivity, we opted to hook each handheld up to a 21-foot Shakespeare 476-1 marine VHF base station antenna for the ultimate test of selectivity and intermodulation interference rejection. This allowed us to quickly find out which handhelds would remain quietly squelched with no signal on channel when hooked up to a big outside antenna.

The lab tests revealed little surprises. Each radio transmitted as advertised, and each handheld had great receiver sensitivity on the service monitor. When hooked up to the outside antenna, many of the handhelds would occasionally pick up pager tones, which is normal for any type of small receiver being pounded by nearby adjacent-band transmitters.

During the lab tests, we did find that most handhelds transmit on frequencies not listed in the FCC’s Part 80 rules. We discovered a third weather channel that might not necessarily appear in the weather WX3 readout. If you have more than two weather stations in your area, it’s best scan for the third station.

We also found that audio output seen on our test equipment in a miliwatt rating was no real indication of how the handheld actually sounded when out on a noisy boat with the volume turned three-quarters up. Some were too bassey, others seemed too shrill. While you couldn’t see these differences on an oscilloscope or meter, you could really HEAR the difference out on the water.

We found an amazing disparity of operating performance when we left the instruction book back at the dock and took the equipment out for a couple of days of handheld VHF communications. Some sets were intuitively easier to operate, while others took us several minutes to figure out how to program for scanning and priority channel monitoring. Some units hung on our belt like a lead weight, and others were so small that we forgot they were in our foul weather gear pocket. Some sets had plenty of loud audio, whereas others were almost useless without an earphone. Several handhelds were easy to see at night, and some required holding a small flashlight in your teeth to see the dial.

Midland 78-21
Midland is well-known for CB radios, land mobile radios, ham sets, and marine VHF equipment. We found that Midland gear is seen more at local tackle shops than in the big mail order catalogs.

On the 78-211, two knobs on the top control on and off, plus volume and channel selection. If you like the idea of whizzing through the channels with a knob on top, this radio does it nicely. Having the selector knob on top is also convenient for switching channels when the unit is worn on your belt. But “going up one channel” is not necessarily the way you would operate a marine VHF.

The antenna is threaded, and you will need an adaptor to hook up your onboard VHF antenna. However, the supplied rubber antenna worked quite nicely when we operated the equipment out on the water. Volume was adequate, but on noisy boats we’d like it louder. Squelch action is automatic, and the display is the average silver background with black numbers.

Midland offers a choice of slow-and fast-paced sampling scan; we liked the fast scan that would seek out signals that some of the other handhelds skipped over. Memorizing channels was easy by simply hitting the MW button; getting to Channels 16 and 9 can also be accomplished with one hand and your thumb by simply pressing the recessed buttons.

We noticed that the speaker and microphone jacks are on the top of the unit, and the little rubber plugs that should keep water out constantly blew open in a strong wind—an invitation to moisture intrusion.

We'd say this unit is probably best used as a workaday unit around the docks. It’s tough enough to take almost any type of abuse other than getting wet.

SMR Sea Lab 5100
We wanted our VHF handheld tests to include some unique radios that you don’t often see at the yacht club, or down on the docks. The SMR is a flip-phone style. You can either talk in the bottom section as a regular marine VHF, or swing down the “flip phone” element and talk over the radio as though it were a cellular phone. In fact, we found the SMR 5100 the perfect radio for those persons who can’t get the hang of talking on a regular marine VHF handheld.

The battery slides up the back and locks firmly on the flip-phone handheld. A very strange (but functional) slide-on battery charger allowed us to charge either the big battery on the unit or a spare battery off the unit. The charger puts out several hundred milliamps of charging power, and the manual cautions to not leave the unit on the charger for more than 12 continuous hours. If you need a fast recharge, the supplied charger will do the job nicely.

Volume and squelch knobs are on top of the unit, and the SMR had good full-fidelity audio that we judged as slightly louder than many of the other, more expensive handhelds. The antenna jack is the common BNC-type which, with an adaptor, would allow you to easily hook it up to your outside marine VHF antenna.

The speaker and microphone jacks are on the right side of the unit, and the little rubber stoppers were stiff enough to keep these open ports absolutely sealed closed.

The channel display was judged very good with big, black numbers on a silver background. It scans all channels, and it will take 10 programmable channels with an instant channel 16 direct-entry key.

Aboard a noisy boat, we liked the idea of operating the unit like a portable cellular phone—listen close to the speaker, and then talk right into the opened flip-phone microphone.

The SMR has an emergency on-and-off slide switch that forces a modulated CW “SOS” on VHF channel 16. It sends the SOS five consecutive times, and then goes into a receiving period for 30 seconds. If the squelch circuit doesn’t detect a signal on Channel 16, it repeats this pattern, over and over. However, if the squelch detects activity on the distress channel, it automatically cycles down.

This SOS feature should not be confused with digital selective calling (DSC), or the old Class C VHF distress alert. Rather, this feature is more an attention-grabber in the event you’re too busy to start hollering “Mayday” as you’re bailing or putting out a fire.

The SMR has a battery eliminator circuit that upped our power output to a whopping 7 watts when plugged into the wall. The unit gets mighty warm at this high-power output, but nonetheless it puts out 2 more watts over what you would normally get with the battery pack untethered. We think the SMR has some outstanding features, especially the flip-phone design.

Sea Ranger 9500
The name “Sea Ranger” is synonymous with budget marine electronics, though units we’ve tested invariably live up to their stated specifications. The 9500 is a relatively lightweight handheld with volume and squelch knobs on the top, along with the common BNC-type antenna jack. You change channels by pushing an up or down arrow, and there is an instant Channel 16 button, as well as a button for quick VHF weather.

The plastic rails for the battery were rather thin and ultimately could lead to failure if the unit ever gets dropped. The battery contact points were relatively small; if any corrosion should get into the battery contact area, the unit could stop working.

The push-to-talk button was on the side of the unit and had a good, firm feel, but the high- and low-power button was so close to the push-to-talk switch we were regularly accidentally turning our power down or up. Scanning speed was slow, real slow, but at the same time this unit could really grab onto extremely weak signals; when we double-checked its signal strength on our service monitor, the little Sea Ranger 9500 was one of the hottest radios tested. When using it, it’s best to operate it on the little rubber antenna, rather than substituting your big white fiberglass marine VHF whip because the whip would quickly overload the receiver in strong-signal environments.

We liked the display—big and bold. We did not like the audio, because it had way too much bass. We’d call this a plain-Jane budget model that works as advertised.

Icom M-15
This radio, around for about five years, consistently proves its resistance to water. The M-15 is indeed submersible for up to 30 minutes in shallow water. (It will easily survive staying submerged all night in the bottom of your dinghy.) The battery fits on the inside of the transceiver—you dog down a big screw and watch the rubber O-ring seal up watertight.

The display isn’t all that large, but it is recessed to avoid accidentally scratching the plastic when you are wearing it on your belt. There is a backlight for nighttime viewing, and the audio is both full fidelity and relatively loud. After submersion, you’ll need to blow the water out of the speaker chamber in order to restore normal volume levels. The antenna is a waterproof “SMA,” and there are adaptors that allow you to run this on an external antenna. We did, and the receiver was sufficiently selective to cancel out local off-channel interference.

The M-15’s best feature is its capability to go under water and not leak a drop. As in our November 15, 1996 test, we continue to recommend it.

Uniden HH-940
This extremely small handheld is growing in popularity among personal watercraft operators. It’s small enough to fit into a pocket, and it’s also capable of withstanding a quick accidental dunking. We tried to contact the factory to find out exactly how waterproof it was, and what the warranty was, but never heard back. So we dunked it in a bucket, and it survived without a drip on the inside.

The HH-940 puts out only 1 watt of power to conserve the relatively small battery pack that comes sealed against water intrusion. But 1 watt of power can travel line of sight, and if you’re within a few miles of someone else guarding Channel 16, you’ll certainly be able to get help.

This was the only handheld that displays the frequency on the top of the unit, rather than on the front face of the unit. This we liked because we could see what channel we were on without having to take it out of our pocket. The audio was tinny—almost to the point of being annoying—but that’s what you often get with a completely waterproof speaker.

We liked the oversize belt-clip on the back. We wished that the factory would have been more communicative, but nonetheless, we give the HH-940 Uniden thumbs up for a waterproof handheld that is small enough to easily fit in a pocket.

Standard Horizon HX-150S
This is a sleek 5-watt VHF transceiver that feels great when it’s hanging off your belt—no sharp edges and it’s not so bulky that it might get caught on everything.

The LCD display is the biggest and most readable of all the sets we tested. Volume and squelch are adjusted by up and down arrows—first hit the volume or the squelch button, then the up or down arrow, and it does its thing. Wait a couple of seconds and it reverts to a ready state. There is instant red-button access to Channel 16 or 9, and there’s a programmable scanning feature that lets you drop in those channels you wish to check automatically for activity.

This radio is best operated only with its own rubber antenna—the antenna output jack is unique to this set, and trying to adapt the jack might be tough. The jack is designed to provide good weather resistance, although this unit is not submersible. However, if you should get water on the inside, Standard will repair or replace the unit for free for three years.

One of the best features of this handheld is the included AA alkaline battery tray that will run the set off of common penlight batteries should you deplete the NiCad battery pack and are unable to recharge it. You’ll find that alkaline batteries will run the unit about twice as long as rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries.

We ran the unit all day on the rechargeable batteries and couldn’t get them low enough to get the low-battery indicator to come up. This tells us that the HX-150S is going to be a great performer in between battery charges because of its minuscule current consumption on squelch receive.

Apelco 501
This unit produces 6 watts of power and can switch down to 1 watt to conserve battery life. The battery slips on tough guide rails—a good thing because there is no magic battery unlock button to keep it from accidentally getting knocked off.

Apelco tackled the water intrusion problem of the rubber stoppers at the top of the unit by going one step further than the little rubber stoppers—they glued them down, which keeps them firmly in place until you may need to use them. If you do, simply peel away the cement, and you’re all set.

Volume and squelch are top-mounted knobs, and the Apelco had some of the loudest audio that we heard—loud enough for a very noisy boat. We judged the backlighting as fair. We found it interesting that Apelco chose to block out transmitting on Channels 1, 2, 3 and 4, yet allows calls on VHF Channels 60 through 64—possibly for use in Europe.

With its extra-loud audio, the Apelco is well designed for noisy commercial applications with the engine running. It has plenty of scanning and priority channels, plus a low-battery indicator on the relatively small LCD readout. It’s built tough, and may be the right radio for someone who really needs loud audio.

Icom M-1
This very small handheld has a relatively large display and plenty of audio power despite its size. It fits nicely into a pocket, yet the oversized pushbuttons make the unit easy to operate with one hand.

The unit is relatively skinny, which means that the battery pack it comes with might only keep you on the air for about 4 hours. There’s a bigger battery pack that can run up to 10 hours, but this turns the little lightweight handheld into a heavyweight—something you don’t want.

The top-mounted knobs are for channel changing and volume—but Icom put channel changing on the left and volume on the right, just opposite to what you might think. Squelch is automatic. To sample a channel without squelch on it, just push the squelch button momentarily and it overrides the silence with plenty of background reception.

A unique tag-scan system allows you to quickly memorize active channels with just your thumb. We liked it—no series of keystrokes necessary here. The unit can take an optional scrambler. Best of all, the case ribs make for a good positive feel when you’re holding it and it’s dripping wet. While not rated as a submersible, it survived underwater for 30 minutes in our 1996 test.

Unfortunately, there is no alkaline battery pack. The audio sounded good. When the unit is sitting on a chart table, the downward-facing grooves tend to kick the audio back up for easy reception. We judged audio recovery as quite good when the radio is worn on your belt, even though the grooves are pointing down.

Because the M-1 is so light and handy in its operation, we feel it is one of the best ergonomically designed handheld radios available. Its only shortcoming is short battery life with the standard battery.

Standard HX-255
This is Standard’s “big” handheld system that includes a free alkaline battery tray along with a nickel cadmium rechargeable pack. This radio, an upgrade from the original HX-250 that was a bit slippery to hold, has a new case with a rubber feel to it, and the big head and skinny body make it a natural to hold onto. There is one-button access to VHF Channels 16 or 9, and the set also includes weather alert. The readout is relatively large.

When we operated the unit, we found that the placement of the top-mounted volume and squelch knobs was absolutely opposite to everyone else in the industry. Squelch is on the right and volume is on the left; it took some time to reach for the right knob and properly adjust it.

The battery pack fits up inside the unit, allowing it to survive a quick underwater dunking. You fasten the battery pack with a big screw. Unlike the old HX-250, which failed a dunking in the 1996 test, this one survived underwater for a minute.

Scanning was ultra-fast. This was one of the most sensitive units to weak signals that we tested. But we still had to figure out which knob was volume and which knob was squelch in order to get reception just right.

Uniden HH-980
This is the same unit as the West Marine Santana, except that it is gray rather than white, and features the Uniden-style LCD readout of blue numbers on a silver background.

The audio on the Uniden HH-980 was judged as only fair—if you turn up the volume, it will sound somewhat muffled and distorted. However, certain signals like the local weather channel come through better than persons with deep-sounding voices.

When going through the channels, we noticed that the Uniden HH-980 does not offer United States Coast Guard Auxiliary members transmit capabilities on government Channels 81 and 83. But this unit, like most of the others radios tested, did give us transmit capability on Channels 1 through 5, plus Channels 60 through 63. Keep in mind that Channel 3 is assigned to the police radio service, as is Channel 60.

Both West Marine and Uniden claim this equipment is waterproof to U.S. Coast Guard standards, which are more for spray than immersion. Still, after we gave it a good soaking, it continued to function well—after we blew on the speaker grill and got most of the water out of the waterproof cone.

This a basic unit and reasonably priced; we actually preferred the West version because its backlit keys were easier to see at night.

While the best radio for you depends to a great degree on how you plan to use it, we can't see much reason for not picking a submersible model.

Of the four units we tested that are submersible, we think that the tiny Uniden HH-940 is a Best Buy. It's got a range that's adequate, if limited; largely because of the limitations of a small battery pack. It fits easily into a pocket, and has a very conveniently located channel display. At a list price of $179—only $10 more than the least expensive non-submersible—its a choice that's hard to resist.

The Icom M-1 will push out 5.2 watts of signal, and add some creature comforts (backlit keypad, larger LCD display, provision for heavy-duty battery pack) for another $69. It shares our Best Buy rating with the lower-powered Uniden 940.

The other two submersible units we tested—the Icom M-15 and the Uniden HH-980—are both good radios. Both survived the dunk test published in our November 15, 1996 issue. Of the two, we have a slight preference for the Uniden HH-980, based on the Uniden's better display and lower price; the Icom M-15, on the other hand, has been around for a long time and has earned a good reputation for waterproof operation.

Of the non-submersibles we like the SMR 5100’s flip-phone operation and the ability of the two Standard radios to run on alkaline batteries.

Contacts— Apelco Marine Electronics (Raytheon Marine), 676 Island Pond Rd., Manchester, NH 03109; 603/647-7530. Garmin, 1200 E. 151st St., Olathe, KS 66062; 913/397-8200. Icom, 2380 116th Ave. NE, Bellevue, WA 98004; 425/454-8155. Midland, Box 33865, Kansas City, MO 64120; 816/241-8500. SMR Marine Electronics, 1401 NW 89th Ct., Miami, FL 33172; 305/591-9433. Standard Communications, Box 92151, Los Angeles, CA 90009; 310/532-5300. Uniden America (Sea Ranger), 4700 Amon Carter Blvd., Ft. Worth, TX 76155; 800/772-7497.

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