High-End VHF Radios: Icom and Standard Horizon Get Top Honors
Strong performance and a long list of features make the Icom M602 our top pick. For $175 less, the Standard Horizon Quantum GX2360S nearly equals the Icom's performance and features, making it a Best Buy.
Our last VHF radio test (July 15, 2005) covered basic fixed-mount units designed to get the job done inexpensively with little in the of way frills. Now, we're moving to the other end of the spectrum. This round of VHF radio testing and evaluation centers on the bigger, feature-rich radios at the pinnacle of each participating manufacturer's product line. Sophisticated DSC features, built-in hailers with automatic foghorn capabilities, alphanumeric keypads to quickly select functions or enter data, and superior transceiver performance are needed to be competitive in this group.
What We Tested
To gather only the cream of the crop from each manufacturer's VHF lineup, we set a minimum price of $299 and stated no upper limit. This produced seven top-of-the-line VHF radios from Furuno, Icom, Raymarine, and Standard Horizon, ranging in price from our minimum to a high of $600. Furuno supplied us with an FM3000, which is actually a rebranded Icom-built radio. Icom sent its M502 and M602 radios, and Raymarine supplied its venerable model 215, and the newly released model 240 modular radio. Standard Horizon sent two units, the Quantum GS3500S and the Quantum GS2360S.
How We Tested
We ran each radio through a series of bench tests, including transmitter power output, frequency accuracy and stability, and receiver sensitivity, using a very sophisticated piece of radio test gear, our Ramsey COM3010 communications service monitor. FCC regulations limit marine VHF transmitter maximum power output to 25 watts; they also specify that the radio must have a low-power setting, typically 1 watt, for harbor use. Watts of power output leaving the radio translate into the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy coming out of the radio. We took all of our transmitter power measurements directly off the radio antenna port on the back of the radio. In the real world, several other factors could limit the actual power that reaches the antenna.
Frequency accuracy is defined as the ability of the transmitter to send signals out on the correct frequency. Frequency stability measures the transmitter's ability to maintain frequency accuracy over its entire temperature operating range. Regulations mandate an accuracy of 10 parts per million while industry groups typically call for half that error. This equates to being about 1550 Hz off frequency in the marine frequency band.
Each transmitter test was done on channel 16 at room temperature (74° F), as well as temperature extremes near the maximum ranges of each radio.
To reach the cold extreme, each radio was put in our freezer (at 15° F) for four hours prior to testing. We used our smoker as an environmental chamber to get the radios to high-temperature extremes. Each was left to cook for two hours at 122° F and then immediately run through a transmitter power and frequency test.
We also tested at two input voltages. First, we used our CSI Speco 50-amp power supply to produce 13.8 volts DC to simulate operations in a boat with the engine running and the alternator powering the boat's electrical system. Next, we stepped down the voltage to 11 volts DC to simulate trying to transmit with a nearly dead battery. Amperage draw measurements were recorded using a Fluke 336 clamp-on ammeter when transmitting at both 13.8 and 11.0 volts DC.
We checked each unit's low-power setting, measuring both power input and output. Power output for each test is shown in the accompanying chart. Frequency stability was rated over the entire range of transmitter testing; the closer a unit held to the appropriate frequency, the higher it was rated.
Receiver sensitivity is the ability of the radio's receiver section to hear a weak signal. Normally stated in microvolts, typical marine VHF receiver sensitivity ratings run from .22 to .35 with industry groups recommending a minimum .50 microvolts.
Each radio receiver was tested for the minimum signal it could receive at a specific industry standard setting between background noise and generated signal (12 dB SINAD). All the radios rated Good or better, meaning they are more than sensitive enough to pick up very weak incoming signals.
Another receiver standard is selectivity; it is the ability of the receiver to reproduce only the signals you want to hear and not others, even though they may be strong and nearby. Our test equipment did not allow us to test each radio for this characteristic. Information listed in the table under selectivity is provided by the manufacturer; a higher number is better.
The display unit on each radio was rated by our tester based on the size of the channel number display, the amount of other information shown, the size of the screen, and the quality of the backlighting.
One important part of the marine radio often overlooked is the audio amplifier and speaker. Sailboats can produce a lot of noise, and if you can't hear the output, it doesn't really matter how well the receiver works. To rate the audio system of each radio, we measured the sound pressure at maximum volume while generating a 1 KHz tone with our COM3010 and inputting into the radio. Measurements were taken at a distance of 1 meter using a Radio Shack decibel meter. Our tester also rated each audio system with a voice input by monitoring a weather channel and rating the quality of sound reproduction.
Additionally, we gave each radio a rating based on the level of features incorporated into the unit beyond the basic ability to transmit and receive. Units with more sophisticated DSC capabilities, superior channel comments (channel usage descriptions on the radio display), hailers, and alphanumeric keypads received higher ratings. For hailer testing, we connected a Speco SPC-40RP/4 PA Trumpet Horn to each radio with hailer capability. Then we operated each radio's hailer system in manual and automatic modes to make sure everything worked as stated in the manual. Hailer/foghorn systems were rated for ease of operation and the extent of their capabilities; more capable systems received higher ratings. To actually use the hailer/foghorn aboard a vessel equipped with one of these radios would require the purchase and installation of a PA horn matched to the radio.
Icom M502 and Furuno FM3000
These two Icom-built radios are essentially the same internally. There are only a few minor cosmetic differences. The Furuno, for instance, has elliptical pushbuttons, while the Icom has rectangular pushbuttons. Both achieved similarly excellent overall performance ratings. Transmitters demonstrated very stable power output through the entire gamut of tests while transmitter frequency stability was rated Excellent for the FM3000 and Good on the M502. Both receivers tested well, too, with sensitivity ratings of Excellent and selectivity specifications second only to the Icom M602. Audio output was rated Excellent, with measured sound pressure levels ranking near the top.
These radios both feature a one-button control of the following functions: selecting International, US, or Canadian channels, shifting to weather channels, changing transmitter power output, running a tag scan, and selecting receiver attenuation. This last one lets you set the radio receiver for either distant or local reception. In a congested harbor with lots of VHF radio traffic, a receiver can be overwhelmed with signals. By setting the unit to “local,” the radio will cut out most of the weak signals and provide better reception of the stronger nearby signals.
When GPS data is input to the radio, both current time and position can be displayed on the screen. Small rotary knobs located on the lower left side of the radio face control volume and squelch. A large knob in the center of the face is used for channel selection. Optional add-ons include a remote microphone with controls and a voice scrambler. DSC capabilities are listed in the chart.
This pair can listen for signals on channel 16 while monitoring other channels via Dualwatch and Tri-watch. Scanning several channels at once is accomplished via normal or priority scanning. Normal looks at each channel in numerical order while priority checks channel 16 between other channels. Another refinement in scanning found in Icom radios is channel tagging. Channels are tagged to be included in a scan.
These radios are not equipped with hailer or foghorn capabilities.
We rated the displays on the Icom M502 and Furuno FM3000 as Good. Though they are quite functional with seven levels of backlighting adjustment, the ability to display Alpha channels when selected, and the display of both transmit and receive icons, the screens are only about half the size of the largest in the group.
We found the Icom M502 on the web for $299; the Furuno version was $364. Warranties vary too. The Icom has a 3-year warranty, while the Furuno only carries a 2-year parts and 1-year labor warranty.
Bottom Line: These radios perform well, but lack some features found on the best. We’d opt for the less-expensive Icom version, which also has a longer warranty.
M602 performance upheld Icom’s track record by besting all others. In our transmitter review, we found the M602 power output stable over the entire temperature and voltage ranges. Frequency stability also tested well and garnered an Excellent rating. We rated receiver sensitivity Good, while selectivity led the field with a specification of greater than 80 dB. Audio output was rated Excellent, with sound pressure levels higher than any other VHF radio we tested.
One-button controls are limited to selecting transmitter power level, toggling between weather and voice channels, and making a quick 16 selection. Combining two pushbuttons lets the user select between US, International, and Canadian channels. Volume, squelch, and channel selection are controlled with knobs. Other radio features are controlled via a function key and the alphanumeric keypad. For example, hitting the F key followed by the 1 key turns on Dual scan. F then 2 is Tri-Watch, and F then 3 is screen backlighting. Once this function is selected, backlighting is adjusted up or down by turning the channel selector knob.
The remaining keys control tag-scan operation and channel selection, receiver local/distant attenuation, hailer, automatic fog signals, optional intercom, and optional voice scrambler. The M602 is capable of coupling to two remote microphones. Current time and position are normally displayed on screen when GPS data is input to the radio.
In addition to the DSC features listed in the chart, the M602 can store up to 100 other individual or group MMSI numbers with a maximum of 10 character names. As many as 20 incoming distress and 20 other incoming messages can also be stored. A "nature of distress" tag, selected from a list of 11 items, can be added to a DSC call. Like the other Icom radios tested, the M602 can scan several channels at once via normal or priority scanning. Normal looks at each channel in order while priority checks channel 16 between other channels. Tag scanning is also available.
The hailer on the M602 performed well, with more than adequate volume. Automatic fog signals can be set to sound for: power vessel underway, vessel underway but not making way, sailing vessel underway (this one can also be used for several other vessel conditions), and vessel under tow. Foghorn tone is adjustable from 200 to 850 Hz.
The large display screen on the M602 has seven levels of backlighting, both transmit and receive icons, designated areas for position and time display, alpha channel display, and channel comment directly below the large channel number.
The Icom M602 is one of the more expensive radios in our review; we found it for $513 on the web. It carries a 3-year warranty.
Bottom Line: This radio has outstanding performance and a long list of user-friendly features. It is our top pick.
Pilots flying large aircraft make VHF calls with a hand mike plugged into a bulkhead. They change channels with a small control head on the center pedestal, and listen to incoming calls on an overhead speaker. All of these components interface with a black box containing the guts of the radio located below in an electronics bay.
Raymarine followed this aviation pattern when it designed a modular small-boat VHF radio, the Raymarine 240. It has three main components: First, the waterproof telephone-style handset, which contains all the radio controls, a microphone, and a speaker; second, a large waterproof external speaker with volume control; and last, the black box, (which is actually gray) housing the transmitter and receiver. The box is only “drip-proof” and should be mounted in a dry area. Supplied cables connect all the components, and a second handset can be added as an option.
The main advantage of a component radio is to minimize the use of valuable panel space. With the main electronics box in an out-of-the-way space, only the microphone hangs near the helm. The speaker can be mounted in an overhead space if panel area is limited.
In this gang of radios, we found the performance of the Ray 240 about average. Transmitter power output was very stable, a few watts below the best radios. Frequency stability was Good. The receiver carries a selectivity rating of greater than 70 dB and attained a sensitivity rating of Good. Audio output was rated Excellent, though the sound pressure levels generated were at the low end of the radios tested.
All the radio controls including the display screen are located in the handset. Rocker-style pushbuttons on the handset change channels and squelch levels. Another rocker on the side controls handset volume. The push-to-talk switch is on the side, too, just above the volume control. The handset can be used like a traditional microphone or held to the ear like a telephone.
A DSC distress call button is under a plastic cover on the back of the handset. Seven other pushbuttons located on the handset face control items like transmitter power, scanning, quick select 16 or 9, and select weather channels. One of the remaining buttons, MENU, brings up a list of six items that control other functions like the hailer, automatic fog signals, an MMSI phone book, local/distant receiver setting, and DSC operations.
The phone log in the Raymarine 240 can store up to 20 individual MMSI numbers and one group number with up to 15 character names. Message log can store up to 20 received messages. Other DSC functions are in the chart.
Channel scanning options on the 240 include Dual Watch and Tri-Watch, selected via the WATCH key with either a momentary press or a press and hold. Non-priority and priority scanning are turned on and off with the SCAN key.
Hailer and automatic fog signals are activated through the menu. Selections include hailer, foghorn manual, and foghorn auto. Hailer or foghorn volume must be adjusted in the manual mode only. Automatic mode can generate fog signals for powerboat under way, powerboat underway and not making way, sailboat under sail (again this one covers several other configurations), vessel under tow, pilot boat, and vessel at anchor. The automatic foghorn worked properly and had adequate volume.
The display on the handset is the smallest of any units in this price category. It has three levels of backlighting and normally displays channel selected, volume level, squelch level, and transmitter power level. Current position can be displayed as well. With all this data on such a small screen, letter and number size is small. Anyone who wears reading glasses would likely need them to read this display. We rated it Fair.
This is the most expensive VHF radio we tested. It is priced at $599 and carries a 3-year warranty.
Bottom Line: Though this modular radio has good overall performance, only you can decide if its features are worth the price.
Overall transceiver performance of the Raymarine 215 was average compared to other radios in this group. Though transmitter power output was stable over the complete range of testing, frequency stability was off a bit and rated Fair. Receiver sensitivity was rated Good, while its selectivity is specified at 70 dB rating. Audio quality was Excellent and sound pressure levels were high.
Raymarine 215 functions are controlled with seven pushbuttons on the radios faceplate and a DSC distress button on the back of the hand mic. A single button push of the 16/9 key selects channel 16. A single press of the D/L key changes receiver sensitivity to local or distant. Volume, squelch adjustment, and channel selection are accomplished with rotary knobs. A second full-function handset that provides significantly more features can be added to the radio as an option.
DSC capabilities of the Raymarine 215 are limited. Note the list of available functions listed in the chart. Up to 10 MMSI numbers of other vessels can be stored in the phonebook. One downside is that names are restricted to a single letter designation.
To scan two channels, the 215 is put in Dual-Watch mode by pressing the MON/1/25 key momentarily. To add a weather channel to the mix and initiate Tri-Watch, simply requires a momentary press of the WX/INT key. All-channel scanning, memory scanning, and memory channel selection is done by pressing the SCAN/MEM key.
Though the display is large with easily readable channel numbers, it does not have the ability to display channel comments or alpha channels. When we viewed the display screen with polarized sunglasses there was a significant decrease in viewability. This accounts for its Fair display rating.
This radio is not equipped with hailer or foghorn capabilities.
The Raymarine 215 is priced at $299 and carries a 3-year warranty.
Bottom Line: Limited DSC capabilities and only average transceiver performance.
Standard Horizon Quantum GX2360S
Testing at or near the top in all categories, the Quantum 2360S proved itself a worthy radio to have aboard. We found transmitter power output to be stable throughout the range of tests, while frequency accuracy hardly varied and earned an Excellent rating. Receiver sensitivity was also Excellent. The 2360S receiver selectivity is rated at greater than 70 dB. Audio output was within one decibel of the best; audio quality was Excellent.
The Quantum 2360S is a brawny radio with a large faceplate and three hefty rotary knobs designated for volume, squelch, and channel selection. Fully one-third of the faceplate is used for the speaker box. This obviously plays a role in the high audio ratings. Other functions are controlled via 10 pushbuttons. A single button push can select channel 16 or 9, switch to weather channel selection, change transmitter power, or bring up the hailer/foghorn menu.
In addition to the quick 16/9 channel selection, a user can designate up to two other channels for one-button priority selection via the A/B key. Pressing and holding the H/L key displays current time and position data if GPS data is being input to the radio. The Quantum 2360S connects to as many as two remote microphones and can be used with an optional voice scrambler.
DSC calling capability with the 2360S is extensive (see chart). Individual and group directories contain the MMSI numbers of other vessels you wish to call. Up to 30 numbers can be stored with names a maximum of 11 characters.
To use Dual Watch scanning, you select a channel to scan in addition to channel 16 and then press the DW key. Memory and Priority scanning is available after the desired channels are placed in memory. Selecting the channel and then pressing the MEM key locks the channel into memory. Memory scan looks at all channels in memory in numerical order from lowest to highest. Priority scan inserts a look at channel 16 and channel 70 (the digital calling channel) between each memory channel.
Once the hailer/foghorn menu is selected with the PA/FOG key, a user can choose to operate the 30-watt hailer or go to the automatic fog signal menu and pick the appropriate foghorn pattern for use. Sound patterns can be selected for powerboat underway, powerboat underway not making way, sailing vessel underway, vessel under tow, vessel aground, and vessel at anchor. A horn and siren sound is also available. Foghorn tone is adjustable from 250 to 850 Hz. We found the hailer/foghorn easy to use and able to produce more than adequate volume.
With the largest screen of any VHF radio we've tested, the 2360S displays channel numbers in large block letters with customizable channel comments alongside. Time and position, frequency group, transmitter power, and transmit/receive icons are also shown. Backlighting has seven levels of brightness and seven levels of contrast. We rated the display screen Excellent.
We found the Standard Horizon Quantum GX2360S on the web for $337. It carries a 3-year warranty.
Bottom Line: Excellent overall performance, a long list of features, and a reasonable price make the Quantum GX2360S a Best Buy.
Standard Horizon Quantum GX3500S
Like the less expensive Quantum GX2360S, the GX3500S has a faceplate with large rotary knobs for volume, squelch, and channel selection. Differences appear on the left side of the radio, where an alphanumeric keypad displaces a portion of the space on the GX2360S allotted to the speaker box. We found this change had a significant effect on audio performance, even though both radios share the same speaker and amplifier circuitry. Cutting down the size of the speaker grille to accommodate the keypad lowered the audio output on the 3500S by six decibels.
Audio quality remained Excellent. Transmitter performance was quite good, ranking among the best with very stable transmitter power output and a transmitter frequency stability rating of Excellent. Receiver sensitivity was Good. Standard claims a selectivity specification of greater than 70 dB.
Most operations in the Quantum 3500S are controlled via the function key and one of the alphanumeric keys. Pressing F then 1 selects the screen backlighting dimmer, F then 2 the memory function, F then 3 starts and stops scanning, etc. Other keys select the remaining functions, some of which include Dual Watch, PA (Hailer), and Foghorn. Single dedicated pushbuttons allow quick picking channel 16 or 9, selecting weather channels, and changing transmitter power. The Quantum 3500S will connect to a maximum of two remote microphones and can use the optional voice scrambler.
The Quantum 3500S has the same extensive DSC-calling ability as the 2360S. However, the addition of the alphanumeric keypad makes entering data in the individual or group directories easier. Directory sizes are the same in both units. The two radios also share the same scanning and hailer/foghorn capabilities.
The Standard Horizon Quantum 3500S is $415 and carries a 3-year warranty.
Bottom Line: Good overall performance and features. The case design cuts down on audio output.
Icom's M602 is packed with features, including a hailer capable of producing automatic fog signals when needed, an alphanumeric keypad to quickly select your desired function or type in MMSI numbers and names, and most importantly the best transceiver performance of this elite group. When coupled to a quality antenna and hailer horn, this unit will do everything but wash your boat.
Standard Horizon's Quantum GX2360S proved to be a Best Buy. At just a few bucks above our minimum price, this radio has excellent overall performance and a full list of features, including a hailer with automatic fog signals and a horn function.