Standard HX350S Is Top-Rated Waterproof Handheld VHF Radio
In our bench tests of seven waterproof models, the Garmin VHF 720 and Icom M-1+ failed their dunkings. If you like micro, the tiny 1-watt dry-as-a-bone Uniden HH940P is slick.
Waterproof VHF handheld radios just make sense. For many of us, they are only used during emergencies. Making them waterproof for the marine environment just makes sense. Until recently, buying a waterproof handheld was prohibitively expensive. Now major manufacturers are pushing waterproof models.
But just how does one define “waterproof?” There are a number of standards, developed both in the US and Europe. The principal one in the US is CFR 46, subpart 110.20. This text defines a “waterproof machine” as one that can withstand a stream of water from a 1" nozzled of 65 gallons per minute for 5 minutes from all directions without leaking. The standard does not intend to cover immersion.
For boat owners, there are two categories of waterproofness to which devices such as handheld VHF radios ought to comply.
The first is rain or spray that might damage a radio if left outside in the cockpit or when being used in the open. The second is immersion, which is not as likely, but could occur if the radio were dropped. We tested for both simulated rain and immersion.
The “West Advisor” on the meaning of waterproof, found in the West Marine catalog, does a good job of explaining practical considerations as well as other issues, such as “waterproof warranties,” in which a product is not necessarily waterproof, but the company will replace the product if damaged due to water. We mention this because it’s a confusing issue.
We found seven models of VHF handhelds which are being marketed as waterproof, water-resistant or are sold with warranties against water damage. Their range is generally 3-5 miles, depending on antenna height and output power.
After charging for approximately 20 hours, each was connected to our communications service monitor and its basic functions tested to industry standards. Noted were transmitter output power, deviation, frequency error and receive sensitivity for each radio. In all cases, the radios tested within acceptable limits. This was interesting as the seven radios tested range in price from $170 to $400 discount.
Each radio was then individually exposed to a handheld shower head at a distance of 1' for a period of 5 minutes. They were manually rotated to ensure direct exposure to water on all sides. After the dousing, we first checked for the operation of the radio’s buttons, controls and display. Audio quality was also checked for degradation. They were then immediately retested for the same technical parameters previously listed and any changes noted. This ensured that we could identify a radio that seemed to be fully operational but was actually degraded by water exposure.
Radios that survived were then further tested for water-resistance by being placed in a bucket of clean tap water. The radios were turned on and set to channel 16 prior to being dropped into the water. Each was removed at any indication of a problem. All radios were removed after 30 minutes. Those that apparently survived were again bench tested, and then resubmerged for an additional 30 minutes.
The chart above outlines each model and the results of our evaluation. Measured technical parameters are listed. Note that most radios did not have a power output exactly as advertised. Being a few tenths of a watt low will not effect the range of communications you can expect from your radio. All the models tested had very good receive sensitivity and were acceptably close to transmitting on the assigned frequency.
Modulation levels should be set as close as possible to the legal maximum of 5.0 kHz. Several radios tested below 4.5 kHz. While this is acceptable, if we were repairing these we would turn up the level slightly.
Certain important features are listed for each model. All had one-button direct access to channel 16 and channel 9. Additionally, some models offer the ability to decode the weather alert tone transmitted by the national weather service in the event of a severe weather warning. This feature allows monitoring for weather problems without having to tolerate the drone of constantly listening to the local forecast.
In our opinion, a low-battery indicator on VHF handhelds is better than none, but in our expeience their accuracy cannot be relied upon. An accurate indicator would take the guesswork out of knowing when you should recharge the radio. All models tested except the Icom M15 have a low-battery indicator—for what they’re worth. A more positive indication, of course, is when the VHF radio begins to sputter, flash or sound fuzzy. If this happens, it’s time to recharge. Don’t start worrying about damage unless the radio continues to behave abnormally even after being recharged.
Each radio was rated for waterproofness, ergonomics, its accompanying battery charger, audio quality and overall performance. Radios with the highest waterproofness rating on our chart survived the longest and remained functional. The failure points are described in our individual analysis of each model.
The ergonomics rating indicates the ease of operating each radio, especially with one hand as well as the clarity of its display, and includes an allowance for size and weight. Audio quality was rated for loudness and fidelity. To be usable, a VHF handheld should be audible over a moderate amount of background noise. Unfortunately, the trend toward smaller radios and correspondingly smaller speakers makes this a considerable design challenge.
Some radios included desktop chargers that failed to hold the radio securely in place during rough conditions. Our charger rating indicates the appropriateness of the standard chargers for the marine environment. Note that better optional chargers are available for some models. For the overall performance rating, we included the results of bench testing and experience using each radio for several days.
Since our last two tests in 1996 and 1998, SMA connectors have become the norm for the antennas of better VHF handhelds. This style of connector is small, secure and can be easily made watertight. Adapters to attach an external antenna are available from most retailers who sell these radios. An adapter for the stud-mounted antenna used by the Standard is also available.
Raytheon Ray 102 (Apelco 520) and Ray 106
The Raytheon Ray 102 and Ray 106 radios are nearly identical. The Ray 102 is also sold under the Apelco brand name. Both of these are well-designed, compact radios.
The Ray 102 is light gray in color and is supplied with a 600 milliamp-hour (mAh) Nicad battery pack. The Ray 106 has a rubberized dark gray finish and includes a larger 1200 mAh Nicad battery. An AA alkaline battery holder, belt clip, lanyard, carrying case and mountable desktop charger is included with each of these two models.
Volume and squelch knobs are on the top of the radio with five push-buttons and a channel selector rocker on the front panel. A panel light switch is below the push-to-talk switch on the radio’s side. The battery packs are held in place by one large screw.
These are full-featured radios which also include a weather alert function and three-level transmit power selection, for full power—3 watts or 1 watt. The Ray 106’s charger also includes a discharge function to aid in keeping the battery in top condition. During testing, both of these radios performed very well. Audio output could be louder and was only slightly distorted. Neither radio failed after being submerged for more than 1 hour. The Ray 106 is sold and labeled as having 6 watts of transmit power but during testing it only produced a maximum of 5.4 watts, which was only marginally more than the 102’s 4.95 watts.
Following the dunking, we found a moderate amount of water between the battery pack and radio of each model. Had we tested the supplied AA battery holders they would have filled with water. We would have appreciated Raytheon letting us know that these were not watertight.
As we have come to expect from Raytheon, the manuals were excellent and even include technical and service information.
Bottom line: The Ray 102 and Ray 106 are excellent radios but not our top choice. The 102 is a better value. We recommend the more expensive 106 with its larger battery only if extended operation is anticipated.
The Uniden HH940P was the smallest model tested and is probably the smallest VHF handheld currently on the market. The cost of its small size, however, is its 1-watt transmit power output. This makes it most suitable for use over short distances and not as an emergency radio. The HH940P is marketed primarily toward personal water craft (PWC) users, an application for which it is ideal. Its light weight and slim profile allow it to easily fit in a pocket or even be clipped to a swimsuit. Its display is top-mounted and easily visible without removing the radio from your belt.
The radio is controlled by seven push-buttons and a rocker switch located on the front panel. Our only complaint with this design is that volume and squelch adjustments require two operations, first selecting the desired function and then adjusting the level. Uniden includes a spring-loaded belt clip, lanyard, 400 mAh battery and desktop charger. An AA battery pack is not available.
During testing, the Uniden HH940P performed exceptionally well. It met or exceeded its published specifications and did not waiver after being submerged. Its receive audio was adequate but slightly tinny. Uniden’s manual is good but contains no technical service information.
Bottom line: The Uniden HH940P is an excellent radio. We recommend it highly for PWC users or when a more powerful radio is not needed. However, we would like to see an AA battery holder and a larger 600 mAh battery pack.
Garmin VHF 720
The Garmin VHF 720 is compact and lightweight but boxy in design. All controls are buttons on the front panel. Six individual buttons and a four-way button pad along with two added buttons above and below the PTT switch control all functions. Its display is large and readable. Garmin includes a plastic belt clip, AA battery tray and a lanyard. It is sold without a rechargeable Nicad battery pack and charger. These items must be purchased separately. It is a full-featured radio with weather alert, scan and tri-watch functions.
Garmin’s drop-in charger is a unique design—a simple plastic holder. The cable from a wall pack transformer snaps into the holder and is intended to make contact with the radio’s charging contacts. This approach probably saves money but is unreliable. We had significant difficulty ensuring a good connection to the radio. Furthermore, there’s no indication that the radio is properly connected and charging. We don’t think this is acceptable.
Garmin markets this model as a waterproof and submersible radio. During testing, the 720 survived its shower test but failed within minutes after being submerged. Even after a full day out of the water, this radio did not resume operation. Water droplets were clearly visible under the display.
The Garmin 720 is rated at 3 watts transmit power. All test parameters were within acceptable levels. Garmin’s manual is good.
Bottom line: The Garmin VHF 720 cannot be recommended as a submersible.
The Standard HX350S is the company’s newest model VHF and is being marketed as fully submersible. It is sold with a drop-in charger, belt clip, lanyard, watertight AA battery tray, 1100 mAh rechargeable battery and DC charging cord. This makes it the most complete package tested.
The HX350S is slightly larger than all of the other handhelds tested except the Icom M15, yet it fits comfortably in one hand. Volume and squelch controls are conventional top-mounted knobs. Seven buttons on the radio’s front and two additional buttons above and below its PTT switch control all functions. All customary features except a weather alert function are included. The 350’s display, with its extra large, extra visible 3/4" channel numbers, is especially notable. Receive audio quality was very good.
During testing, the Standard HX350S performed flawlessly. No performance degradation occurred even after the radio was submerged for 1 hour. Its battery compartment remained completely dry. Standard’s manual is good but contains no technical or service information.
Our only criticism of the HX350S is that it’s stud-mounted antenna does not allow for the easy connection of an external antenna.
Bottom line: The Standard HX350S is an excellent radio and is fully submersible, even when operated with its AA battery pack. We highly recommend this model, our top choice for both performance and value.
The Icom M15 is the company’s first waterproof VHF model. It has been available for a number of years and was previously tested in our first look at waterproof VHFs. The Icom M15 was the largest and heaviest radio tested. Ironically, it also has one of the smallest displays. It is supplied with a rechargeable battery, metal belt clip, lanyard and desk top charger. The channel selector, volume and squelch knobs are located on the top of the radio. Five small buttons on the front control all other functions.
Since our last test of the M15, Icom has not made any ergonomic improvements to this model. Its buttons and display are too small. Most importantly, there is no direct access to the weather channels. Weather as well as international channels are chosen by rotating the channel selector. This scheme is not only slow but makes it easy to land on an international channel instead of a US channel.
The Icom M15 did very well during testing. It remained operational and within specifications with no evidence of water intrusion. Speaker audio was slightly distorted at high volume.
Bottom line: The Icom M15 is well built and performed well. However, this model desperately needs updating.
The Icom M1+ is identical to the M1 model which we previously tested except that it is supplied with a higher capacity 1050 mAh battery. A lanyard, belt clip and wall-mount drop-in charger are also included. This model’s flat design and well-placed controls make it ergonomically superior to the M15. Volume and channel knobs are located on its top. Five push-buttons are smartly arranged on the front to allow one-handed operation. The wall-mount charger works best if mounted. If not, it must be used while lying on its back and does not securely hold the radio in place during charging.
The Icom M1+ passed the shower test. However, compared to the other radios tested, we experienced severe distortion when the speaker was wet. After immersion for 30 minutes, the M1+ continued to perform well. However, when it was resubmerged for an additional extended period it failed within a few minutes. Later that day we noticed a considerable amount of water under its display. Icom’s manual is very good it but does not contain any technical information.
Just because our test model leaked doesn’t mean all will, but, if practical, it would be nice if a maker conducted dunk tests before shipping.
Bottom line: The Icom M1+ was previously our top choice among waterproof handheld VHF radios, but no longer.
Waterproof VHF handheld radios have come a long way in the past several years. Eventually, we expect all but the least expensive VHFs will be fully submersible. Not tested this time but still available on the market is the Navico Axis 200, a good but expensive GMDSS-compliant radio which we don’t think has much appeal in the consumer market. West Marine no longer shows it in their catalog.
It is especially pleasing to see both increased competition and product quality in the waterproof handheld VHF radio market.
Contacts- Garmin, 1200 E. 151st St., Olathe, KS 66062; 913/397-8200. Icom, 2380 116th Ave. NE, Bellevue, WA 98004; 425/454-8155. Raytheon Marine, 676 Island Pond Rd., Manchester, NH 03109; 603/647-7530. Standard Communications, Box 92151, Los Angeles, CA 90009; 310/532-5300. Uniden America, 4700 Amon Carter Blvd., Ft. Worth, TX 76155; 800/586-0409.