It has been a long time since people used to go to sea only for earning a living. In recent times sailing, kayaking, jet skiing has become a hobby for the enthusiast group of people. The canoeists and kayakers don't stop until they go further and further out to sea.
Planning for living this type of adventurous life one should also ensure safety for living long enough to continue this passion. And for the safety, the first and foremost thing is a VHF marine radio. VHF radios are must-have safety tool for the mariner, sailor, jet skier, sea kayaker space cruiser or RIBS or whoever venture out on the sea or water, whether it's offshore or on inland waterways.
It is going to be the only way of contacting if you find yourself in difficulty or problem on the sea. And in this article, you will get some help to decide which VHF radio you need to buy and how much you will have to spend for it.
While handhelds are comparatively less costly Uniden MHS75 is the BEST Handheld VHF radio for the money.
Standard Horizon GX1700W has stood out among all the radios to be the BEST buy VHF marine radio. It may cost a bit more than others, but the quality and features are definitely worth the money.
Table of Contents
Quick Comparison Between Top 6 Best VHF Marine Radios Reviews
1. Uniden MHS75
This VHF radio can do all the hard work and still give you the best transmission and long time battery life. It can stay submerged up to 5 feet for 30minutes. It keeps the user up to date with all the latest marine activity.
The LCD screen is easy to read watch operation functionality is great, and the lithium Ion battery is included with the product. You are going to get the radio pre-programmed with NOAA weather channels. It will allow the user to know about any national emergencies and also alerts for severe weather. It has the option to choose 1/2.5/5-watt transmit power which ultimately saves battery life.
Watch operation lets you monitor more than one channel. For say, at a time you will be getting information from 4 channels when the radio is on quad watch mode. Memory channel scan let you scan the programmed channels automatically. The process is it starts from lowest to the highest channel, and when it finds an active channel it stops there. In most cases when you are near the other stations you don't need a 5watt transmission.
When the range is short, it is convenient to use 1 watt because it will consume less battery. And when it seems like that other stations are far away then you can increase it. But the main advantage is you can control it with this model. Uniden MHS75 is a radio full of necessary features to be your best companion on water.
2. Cobra MR F45-D
The Cobra MR F45-D is built for the ease of the user. It is both convenient and affordable for the user. It reaches upto 20 nautical miles with its highest power transmit and the GPS cable is included with it.
It has class D DSC option, both class A and D radios can send and receive DS calls on channel 70 which is used only for digital communications. But the category A radios have two separate receivers with one constantly tuned to channel 70.
Class A radios are therefore more flexible. The station which will hear the call will call your radio on channel 1 or the coast guard will process to bring you the help that you need. Noise canceling microphones often comes handy when you are in crowd environment.
It also has the feature of the auto-weather band so you can always have it on your boat in case engine dies or if there is any bad news to inform about. It works well without an external antenna. One little drawback that it has is that the display fades due to sunlight.
3. STANDARD HORIZON HX870
Another name of Standard Horizon HX870 can be 'the best partner in trouble VHF radio'. The reason behind naming it differently is that this lightweight model can not only float but also it's strobe light turns on automatically which makes it super easy to find if it drops in the water.
It has integrated 66 channels WAAS GPS receiver and in addition a USB port as well. GPS shows current location, course and speed can be displayed in a numerical or compass style. The interface is intuitive and super easy to understand. And noise canceling function eliminates annoying continuous sounds. All in all, it is the safe, comfortable and easy to use VHF radio.
4. STANDARD HORIZON GX1700W
When the best quality VHF radios are discussed the name 'standard horizon' always comes in the list. It has built various qualities of radios in the past years.
Standard Horizon GX1700W is also their one of the best quality VHF radio. It has a lot of features which are not included in any other models and thus it costs a little more as well. The large 3" LCD screen makes the impression better at the first sight.
Standard Horizon GX1700W makes DSC easy because with this model you won't have to do all the hassle for wiring the radio to a GPS for DSC. Because there are internal 12 channel GPS built into the front panel.
It is also capable of saving and entering up to 100 waypoints which will be selected and navigated by using a navigation compass display. The display shows the vessels SOG, COG, BRG (Bearing) and DST (Distance) to the waypoint. Mounting radio is easy with this VHF radio because it is ultra thin.
5. STANDARD HORIZON HX300
A quality model of the standard horizon is the HX300. It is extremely compact and intuitive VHF marine radio on the market. The Standard Horizon HX300 comes with a large LCD screen and does all the scanning functions including programmable, priority scan.
The Standard Horizon HX300 is a floating handheld VHF. The floating feature is vital in handheld marine radios because there is always a chance of dropping it on water. And with this function if it drops in the water, a light will flash so that you can recover it easily. Inside there is a 1650 mAh 3.7V lithium ion battery but its non-memory rechargeable battery.
It has 600 mW internal audio speaker and an easy to operate menu making this the best yet compact floating handheld.It is backed up by three years waterproof warranty. Apart from this, it can stay submerged up to 5 ft for 30 minutes and have an ergonomic case design.
The reception is great, and both weather and emergency bands are great as well.In respect of maritime duties, portable VHF is always considered to light weight, water resistance and robust construction.When it feels nice in hand, it adds some more flavor to the job.
There is no chance of accidental presses or change of channels.The screen is easy to read. Buttons are good for big fingers.It just works right.Its transmission is also good. And the battery life depends on usage.Also talking time consumes more battery then listening or monitoring time.
Transmission consumes a large portion of the total charge in all radios.You can have other radios with more range may be more than 5-10 miles. But HX300 is convenient because of its light weight and floating ability. It makes it one of the best vhf marine radios for kayaking.
6. Uniden Atlantis 270 Handheld
When it comes to choosing a VHF marine radios, Uniden is recommended by all old buyers to the new buyers. Because it makes radios for all the levels of users, be it affordable or expensive with higher end features. The Atlantis 270 handheld radio is another product of Uniden which fulfills all the qualities that Uniden has maintained for years and didn't disappoint its users. Their products are popular for being user-friendly and having long battery life.
The standard is maintained with 10 hour long battery life and the power boost PTT key. It has all NOAA emergency weather channels as well as all USA, International and Canadian marine channels. It is waterproof and body is made of plastic. It can submerge in 1-meter water for 30 minutes. And to remove the water you just shake it for few times.
The adapter for batteries uses four triple batteries and it is excellent as a backup. But since the brand has maintained its standard the lithium Ion battery life is so long that adapter won't be necessary anyway. This model is better than any other model in many aspects. It gives greater range which is better than many expensive and high-end VHF radios.
How Does VHF Marine Radio Work?
Marine radios refer to radio frequency range between 156.0 to 174 MHz.The word VHF which is always used with marine radios means "very high frequency."
Marine VHF radios are mandatory equipment which should be installed in all larger ships and most seagoing small craft to be able to communicate with coast guards and other ships in need. In recent times marine VHF radios not only have basic transmit and receive capabilities it also has DSC(digital selective calling capability)."
What is DSC?
Digital selective calling(DSC), I have mentioned this short form several times in product descriptions, and everyone uses it.But for the people who don't know or who are here for the first time, we will now know what DSC is.
With the help of DSC, a radio sends and receives encoded distress calls on channel 70 digitally. Just by pressing the DSC button a distress call goes to channel 70 and if the radio is connected to a GPS, the distress call will also include your location.
So this is a crucial feature which by the law is required to have in every marine radio. But to let you know and unlikely if there comes any radio which doesn't have this feature you will know what you are doing.
Requirement of License
Whether you have a small boat or a large ship it is very important and necessary to hold a radio operator license. FCC(Federal Communications Commission) have a list and some regulations and if you fall under those rules then you have to hold a license.
That means FCC regulates who is required to hold a radio operator's license and who is not. Again there are categories of license. Different size of ships, boats, and vessels need different license whereas it also depends on for how long the ship will stay in the sea.
So basically what type of license someone needs is based on some factors for example the vessel size, the area and type of operations and radio equipment being used. The process is not at all complex. When it comes to recreational boaters, for the most part, no license is required, but there are exceptions such as when sailing to foreign ports, who they are communicating with and the type of radio equipment used. Therefore it is important to read FCC requirements.
Marine VHF Radio VS. Cell Phone
Why buy a marine radio to communicate when I have a cell phone? This question can peek in some of our minds but the thing is we don't get accurate signals even on land sometimes. How on earth can we expect to get the phone signals on water or sea?
On the water, all safety issues are either for our own life or someone's else's life. Therefore no one should take this security measures lightly. By the law, a VHF marine radio is the first and foremost thing to have on water vehicle. But we need to understand its need. Other than this weather alert and DSC features of marine radios lack in cell phones. And most of the cell phones are not waterproof.
Things to Consider Before Buying a VHF Marine Radio
People buy VHF marine radios for different reasons the most important of them is the safety issue. Many times it's you who need help when on the water and other times someone on the sea might need help as well. And the weather alerts resides within the safety issues. Getting to know about the storms, getting the warning of the weather at the correct time is crucial when in the sea.
So the first thing on the boat should be a VHF DSC marine radio. If you are a sailor, jet skier or sea kayaker space is going to be an issue so for these purpose handheld are preferable. Nowadays every other radio is waterproof even the FM/AM radios are waterproof. So it's quite obvious that a marine radio has to be waterproof, UV light damage proof.
All the marine radios are waterproof. Apart from this, submersible marine radios are also very common in the market but how much time it will stay submerged that is the question. Thats why the floating ability or a strobe flashlight ability when submerged are very crucial to consider before purchasing a VHF.
Another important feature one should look out when purchasing a marine radio is the selectivity ability. The more the selectivity, the clearer the received signals will be. It is mostly needed for the times when the airwaves are crowded with signals.
But the selectivity also depends on the location. Handhelds have lower selectivity level than fixed mounts. While all the radios have the feature called 'channel scanning' which is not used that much. If the user is cruiser or RIBS venturing further out to sea, motorboat or yacht sailing further offshore need greater range and for that, it is wise to use fixed mount VHF radio.
There are mainly 2 types of VHF marine radios.
If the radio is handheld like most of the time its highest power transmit will be 5watt. It is, of course, compact and easy to carry. For the small boats which don't have their electrical supply can easily use handhelds and it does have its pros (and cons are everywhere anyway).
Handhelds are made for quick use so it should be capable of being used under pressure with ease, intuitive user interface and simplicity. A clear and bright display is also necessary.
Features to Consider When Buying the Best Handheld VHF Marine Radio
Battery and Its Longevity
For say if in emergency battery dies or you don't get the signal that VHF radio would be useless to have. While handhelds must have good battery life, fixed mount can be connected to the electrical supply of the boat.
So fixed mounts don't need to have good battery life internally. Many times the battery life shown in the features are not correct. Many will write that the average battery life stays for 10 hours approximately but it will only stay for 6-7 hours which is not enough for even one day.
With handhelds battery life is important but in case of fixed mount there is no need to worry about battery life but it is safe to keep an extra handheld if the power supply of the boat cuts off for any reason.
In the market you will get average portable radios with 10hours or less battery life but if you get the feature of selecting power transmit between 1-5 watt in handhelds than you will be able to save battery. Because when you will be using 1watt power transmit less battery will consume and vice versa.
When fixed mounts are connected with boat's or ship's power supply, you can easily use 25watt transmission which will eventually give you more range to cover. It is better to buy handhelds with rechargeable batteries having extra batteries for emergency as well.
It is very important to have a handheld radio which is waterproof and not splash proof. Some of the waterproof marine radios are also submersible. And few can float as well. Some models also have to flash light when submerged or make noise so that it can be traced underwater quickly. When the feature is written as JIS4, you have to understand that it is only splash resistant.
When IPX7 or JIS7 or JIS8 is written, it means that it can stay submerged in water up to 3/5ft for about 30minutes. And the fixed mount doesn't have the possibility to fall on seawater because most of the time it is fixed to the boat. But it still needs to be waterproof.
Noise Canceling Technology
Noise canceling technology is useful in loud environments such as on a motor cruiser it may be worth considering a set with noise canceling technology. Active noise canceling also improves an incoming signal, therefore increasing voice quality.
Power & Range
In handheld radios, it is very vital to have a marine radio with good range and power transmit. Transmit power and range are related to one another. The more the transmit power, the more range the radio can cover. Handheld radios usually have power transmit up to 6 watt where fixed mount's highest transmit power is about 25 watt. A handheld's importance cannot be fulfilled by a fixed mount anyway. So you might want to buy a handheld radio with an antenna along with more transmit power.
#2- Fixed Mount
While you have the advantage of carrying it with you in the case of handheld VHF radios, fixed mount radios are dependent on the boat's electrical system and it remains screwed down with the boat. If the user is cruiser or RIBS venturing further out to sea, motorboat or yacht sailing further offshore need greater range and for that, it is wise to use fixed mount VHF radio.
You won't have to worry about the battery life of the fixed mount radios because it remains connected to boat's electrical supply system and it can be connected to the external antenna.
Features to Consider When Buying the Best Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radio
Power and Range
With the fixed mount radios being connected with the boats electrical supply it is possible to utilize 25watt transmit power. And the more the transmission unit, the more range you can cover with the radio. The range is said to increase due to power output.
The difference between fixed mount with 25 watt and handheld radio with 5 watt is due to the fixed mount's antenna being large/taller. While you can have greater range with fixed mounts the electric supply of the fixed mount can get cut if the electrical system of the boat goes down.
But with handhelds, since it is dependent on its battery and antenna you can still communicate with nearby coast guard or ship to rescue you. It is better to keep both types of radios, but then again it depends on the purpose. You get a wide range of selecting your transmission power as you can choose the power output 1-25 watt depending on short or long range from the stations.
In most cases when you are near the other channels you don't need a 5-watt transmission. When the range is short, it is convenient to use 1 watt because it will consume less battery. And if seems that other stations are far away then you can increase it. But the main advantage is you can control it. In handheld radios, this is a useful feature to have.
In fixed mounts the antenna can be set in the highest position of the ship as a result, you will cover a great range. There is a vast range of antenna for fixed mounts.
This feature allows to install a microphone in another room inside the boat and operate dual stations from the helm radio. For better understanding try to compare it with an intercom. You will understand it better.
Hailer allows to broadcast to other vessels or ships in the area, line handler and so on. But to use it additional hardwares are required. Eternal hardware which includes waterproof speaker. It can also be converted into microphones from speakers.
Features Important for Both Handheld and Fixed Mounts
Channel 16 is the international distress calling frequency and the coast guard always monitors these calls. The coast guard also uses channel 16 to broadcast bad weather or impending storms as well as other warnings or essential marine information.
Weather Channel NOAA
NOAA Weather channels in a marine radio are the most necessary feature after DSC feature. These channels are for emergency weather alerts. Among all the radios on the market, few have the feature of all NOAA weather channels while few have some fixed number on which you can set your NOAA channels.
Since DSC is an essential feature GPS is necessary to take full advantage of DSC. While this isn't required when making a distress call, GPS will enable you to broadcast your precise location. Not all two-way marine radios have GPS option. So if you need DSC for your radio, you should also look out for GPS option.
In many models, there is no need to wire the radio to GPS for DSC because there are internal 12 channel GPS built into the front panel. Many don't have any external GPS plug. The GPS will receive satellite signals through fiberglass, plastic and wood.
It won't work if it is in a metal enclosure but the radio will. Some also have external cable for speakers. Many models also have integrated 66 channels WAAS GPS receiver. GPS will show current location, course and speed can be displayed in a numerical or compass style.
Automatic Identification System (AIS)
AIS is a tracking system which you can use to locate and identify other ships or boats on water. With the help of AIS- transponder or receiver, a user can get the real time data of ships.
Data includes the type of ship, dimension, cargo, position, speed, destination etc. Transponder broadcasts information to user's vessel. The benefits of having AIS equipped is you can transmit your location, detect movements, manage ports, conduct coastal surveillance, etc.
In the feature section, you will read now and then the terms dual, triple, quad watch operation. But what it means is that these different watches let you monitor up to two coast guard distress channels and one weather channel along with memory channel scan. At a time you are getting information from 4 channels when the radio is on quad watch mode.
The marine handheld radios should come with a standard charger, battery, belt clip, antenna.There are many other accessories you can look out, for example, if it comes with headset or speaker microphone, case.
Some Essential Tips
If you are worried about running out of battery with handhelds, there are lots of things to consider. A good lithiumIon battery can provide radio usage for a day. A spare battery or battery case that holds disposable cells or perhaps a 12V lead may be useful.
Where safety is concerned, if it is possible, try to have both handheld and fixed mount radio on the boat. Both are useful in their own way and comes handy when required.
At first, the target should be that the radio you are choosing should be easy to use because you will always need it in an emergency, Make sure that you know how to use the radios before starting to use it.
All the radios mentioned above have all the essential features that a Marine radio should have. And by other features, you can choose which one suits you. All the terms and features are explained clearly now it's time to decide which one will be the best buy for you.