The best VHF marine radios

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In this article, I review the best vhf marine radios:

If you don’t have time to read the whole article, here are my recommendations:

The best handheld vhf marine radio is the Standard Horizon HX870.  It has everything you need including an internal GPS.

The best fixed panel mount marine radio is the Standard Horizon GX1600B Explorer.   With its compact design, large screen and good mix of features, it’s an excellent marine radio.

Things to consider when choosing a vhf marine radio

Handheld or fixed panel mount

A handheld radio is more suited for smaller boats making short trips. Smaller boats and dinghies probably won’t have their own onboard battery, so a handheld marine radio is the best option.

A handheld radio is also a good backup to a larger vessel’s main fixed panel mount radio. If the fixed radio gets damaged or just stops working for whatever reason, then a handheld radio can be used as a backup solution.

Fixed panel mount marine radios are better adapted to bigger boats making longer trips. They can be powered by the boat’s larger battery and connected to an external antenna which will be bigger than an antenna on a handheld radio and therefore will have a longer range.

Fixed panel radios have a few extra features not usually found on handheld marine radios. An example is the capability of using remote microphones which allow the radio to be used as kind of an intercom whereby crew members can communicate with each other onboard.

Waterproof

Electronic devices are given a waterproof rating using the IPX scale from IPX1 (not waterproof) to IPX7 (totally waterproof – submersible). A rating of IPX4 means the radio is “splash proof” – ie it will keep the rain out but will fail if dropped in water. If you’re buying a handheld marine radio, the best advice is to make sure it has the highest rating of IPX7 so that it will survive being dropped in water.  For fixed panel mount radios, IPX4 (splash proof) should be considered a bare minimum.

Buoyancy

What happens if you drop the radio in the water? Does it float? For a handheld radio especially, the ability for it to float is important because you’ll be handling the radio in difficult conditions while moving about, getting on and off boats, walking close to the water’s edge etc. There’s little point in a handheld radio being totally waterproof and submersible if it doesn’t float. If you drop the radio into the water it’ll be little consolation knowing that your radio is still working if it has sunk to the bottom!

Power output

Power output, measured in watts, will determine the range of the radio, ie the distance over which it can transmit / receive. The higher the power output in watts, the higher the range.

Obviously more output power is good but the downside to more output power is that it will use up more input power (battery) when in use.  A radio with a high power output will need a stronger battery to function.

Traditionally, fixed panel mount marine radios will have a power output of at least 25 watts. A handheld radio should have at least 5 watts.

International usage

If you are planning to navigate in Europe, a radio with ATIS is essential. ATIS stands for The Automatic Transmitter Identification System. It is a marine VHF radio system used and mandated on navigable inland waterways in Europe for identifying the ship or vessel that made a radio transmission.

Battery life

A long battery life for a handheld radio is very important. The actual battery life that you get will depend on the power output of the radio (see above), the usage (how often the radio is actually being used to transmit and receive) and the type of battery installed.  Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries tend to have the longest life.

Advanced features

Other than the ability to transmit and receive radio communications to the shore and to other vessels, there are a few advanced features that are very useful:

  • Distress signal – The ability to send a distress signal with your identity and location at the touch of a button.
  • GPS and navigational tools.
  • Active noise cancelling – This feature filters out all the static, interference and background noise, resulting in a clear signal.
  • Last call voice recording – This feature will automatically record the last incoming call that you received and play it back to you if required. The advantage is that you don’t need to transmit again to ask them to repeat what they said. This helps save battery life.
  • Dual/Tri watch  – This allows you to listen to two (dual) or three (Tri) channels at the same time. One primary and the other one or two channels as secondary. If something is broadcast on any of the channels, you will hear it. If something is being broadcast on all channels, the primary will take over.
  • Scan – This feature will run through a continuous loop of all the channels and pause on any channel that has activity on it.

The best vhf marine radios

Standard Horizon HX870

The Standard Horizon HX870 is a vhf marine radio with GPS, 6 watts of power and an integrated strobe light.

GPS

A highly sensitive 66 channel WAAS GPS receiver allows the HX870 to lock on to a position quickly and accurately. With position information displayed clearly on the display, the user will be able to share position information using DSC and navigate to waypoints using the waypoint navigation feature of the radio.

DSC

Digital selective calling or DSC is a standard for transmitting pre-defined digital messages. It is often used for sending distress signals. When sending a distress signal, the device will include the vessel’s MMSI number as well as its coordinates and, if necessary, the channel for the subsequent radiotelephony or radiotelex messages.

Group Monitor

The group monitor feature allows you to continuously track and display position information of up to 9 pre-selected vessels. Their position information is displayed on the compass page relative to your location on the display.

Emergency strobe light

If the radio falls in the water an emergency strobe light is automatically activated, even if the radio is switched off. The strobe can be reconfigured to flash on and off, flash SOS, or set to stay on continuously.

User-friendly menu system

DSC calling, position sharing, waypoint and route navigation, navigation to DSC distress call can all be performed with just a few simple steps.

Full dot matrix display

The large backlit display measures 1.7″ wide by 1.7″ tall and can display a large amount of information in all lighting conditions.

Waterproof and it floats

The radio is rated IPX8 submersible / waterproof  (1.5M or 4.92 feet for 30 minutes). Furthermore, if you drop it in the water, it floats.

Power source / battery

Supplied with a 1800 mAh Li-Ion Battery, charger cradle and AC 110 V charger cable. There is also an alkaline battery tray for 5x AAA alkaline batteries (not included)

Power output

1W, 2W or 6W transmit power options.

Other features

  • DSC Test Call and Auto DSC Channel Change Selection.
  • Automatically poll the GPS position of a ship using DSC.
  • Enter, save, and navigate to a waypoint with Compass Page.
  • Man Over Board (MOB) function.
  • Navigation (LAT/LON, SOG, and COG) information shown on display.
  • Noise-canceling function for both transmit and receive audio.
  • All USA/International and Canadian Marine Channels.
  • USB Data Port – NMEA Output DSC, DSE, GLL, RMC, GSA, GSV and GGA (9600 baud).
  • NOAA Weather Channel with weather alert.
  • Programmable scan, priority scan, and dual and tri watch.
  • Preset key used to recall up to 10 favorite channels.
  • Dimensions (without antenna): 5.43 x 2.43 x 1.69 inches (138 x 62 x 43 mm).
  • Weight: 8.36 ounces ( 322 grams).

In the box

  • Standard Horizon HX870 marine radio.
  • Antenna.
  • 1800mAh Li-ion rechargeable battery.
  • Charger cradle.
  • AC 120 V wall charger for the charger cradle.
  • DC 12 V cable with cigar lighter plug for the charger cradle.
  • Alkaline battery case for 5x AAA batteries.
  • Belt clip.
  • Hand strap.
  • USB cable (USB “A” plug to USB mini “B” plug).
  • User manual.

Pros

  • GPS and navigation functions.
  • The large backlit screen and easy navigation make it very user-friendly and simple to use.
  • Waterproof / submersible and it floats. – No need to worry about it getting wet or sinking.
  • Easy to program.
  • Compact and lightweight.
  • Emergency strobe light.
  • Up to 6 watts of power is decent for a handheld radio.

Cons

  • The battery life could be better. In “listening mode”, without using GPS the battery lasts for about 6-7 hours.
  • All the controls are “push button“. If you prefer dials, you might be disappointed.

Cobra Electronics MRHH350FLT

The Cobra MRHH350FLT is a handheld vhf marine radio. It features 6 Watts of power for longer range communications and full access to all NOAA weather channels and alarm tones for weather emergencies. It also includes core features like noise-canceling microphone, tri-watch, memory channels and memory scan. The radio floats and is totally waterproof / submersible (IPX7 / JIS7).

USA/International/Canada Channels – Allows operation on any of the three different channel maps established for these areas.

NOAA Weather Channels and alerts – Instant access to all National weather channels, 24 hours a day. Receive NOAA alerts when dangerous weather is nearby.

Waterproof and floating – Waterproof rating of IPX7 / JIS7. It is therefore totally waterproof  / submersible to 3.3 ft (1 m) of water for 30 minutes. This radio will float if dropped overboard. You must use the included battery to float. Furthermore, the “burp” feature expels water from the speaker grill if the unit is dropped in the water or is exposed to extreme rain and weather.

Noise-cancelling microphone – Blocks background noise for clearer communication.

Tri-watch – Monitor three channels at once – Channel 16 and two other programmable channels.

Scanner – Scan through unlimited channels or memory locations to find conversations in progress.

Instant Channel 16/9 – Provides instant access to priority Channel 16 and calling Channel 9.

Backlit dot-matrix screen and illuminated buttons – The backlit screen clearly displays the mode, function or operation the radio is currently in. The illuminated buttons allow high visibility of all function buttons in all lighting conditions.

Speaker / mic jack – Connect lapel speaker and/or microphone and other Cobra accessories. (not included)

Power source / battery – The radio is powered by a 1000 mAh LiON polymer rechargeable battery (included). It can be recharged with an AC adaptor (included) or DC adaptor (included). As a backup power source, the radio can also be powered with standard alkaline AA batteries (not included). This requires an optional AA battery tray (not included).

Power output – Choose between 1, 3 or 6 watts of output power for close or long range communications.

Battery Life

High power usage (6 watts): 8 hours of battery life.
Low power usage (1 watt): 14 hours of battery life.
(Based on the following usage:  5% TX, 5% RX and 90% standby)

Size (without antenna):   4.8 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches (123 mm x 62 mm x 36 mm)
Weight (without batteries):  8 ounces (228 grams)

In the box

  • Cobra MRHH350FLT marine radio.
  • Drop-in battery charger.
  • AC charger.
  • DC charger.
  • LiON battery pack.
  • Antenna.
  • Belt clip and wrist strap.
  • User manual.

Pros

  • Waterproof / submersible and it floats. The “burp” feature also expels water from the speaker grill.
  • Extremely compact and lightweight.
  • Up to 6 watts of power for longer range communications.
  • Very long battery life.
  • Very durable and sturdy.

Cons

  • The speaker could be a bit louder at full volume.
  • Few advanced features.

Cobra Electronics MRF45D

The Cobra MRF45D is a fixed panel mount VHF marine radio. The selectable 1 or 25 Watt output is well-suited for short or long-range communication. It has many advanced features including dual watch, function keys on the mic, noise-canceling microphone, NOAA weather radio and alerts, instant channel 16/9, scan, DSC call log,  signal strength meter and GPS input capability. It is completely waterproof / submersible.

Class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling) – This allows you to maintain a listening watch on a VHF channel while simultaneously monitoring channel 70 for DSC calls. You can send a distress message at the touch of a button as well as specific station-to-station calls. The radio uses two built-in receivers.

GPS integration – If you connect an external GPS (sold separately) to this Cobra MRF45D radio, one push of the distress button on the radio will transmit a distress signal containing your MMSI number and exact coordinates (latitude and longitude) to the coastguard and all other DSC capable receivers within your broadcast range. If you become incapacitated, the radio will continue to send the mayday signal.

Scan – Scan through all channels in the active channel map to find conversations in progress.

Dual-watch: Monitor two channels at once – Channel 16 and any other channel of your choosing.

10 NOAA Weather Channels and weather alerts – Instant access to all national hazards and weather information, 24 hours a day. Weather alerts are in the form of an audible tone and visual alarm to warn of nearby dangerous weather conditions.

Function keys on the microphone – There are handy control buttons on the microphone itself. This makes it very easy to operate the radio with just one hand away from the main unit.

Illuminated Buttons and backlit display – The backlit screen and button make using the radio very easy in low light conditions.

1 or 25 Watts – Dual output power for short and long communication.

USA, Canada and International Channels – Allows operation on any of the three different channel maps established for these areas.

Waterproof / submersible – The radio is rated IPX7 which means it is completely waterproof and submersible.

Easy to install – Mounting kits are included with the radio.

Dimensions:   6.25 x 2.25 x 7.13 inches (159 mm x 57 mm x 180 mm)
Weight:  2.42 pounds (1.1 kilograms)

In the box

  • Cobra MRF45D radio.
  • Microphone.
  • Surface mounting kit.
  • Microphone mounting kit.
  • GPS interface cable.
  • User manual.

Pros

  • The installation is very easy with the mounting kit (included).
  • GPS integration (Your coordinates will be displayed on the radio’s screen and transmitted in case of a distress call.)
  • Fully waterproof and submersible.
  • 25 watts of output power gives this radio a very good range.
  • Class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling).
  • NOAA Weather Channels and weather alerts.

Cons

  • The display isn’t easy to read in direct sunlight.
  • The speaker volume is a bit low.

Standard Horizon GX1600B Explorer

The Standard Horizon GX1600B Explorer is a fixed panel mount VHF marine radio. It has Class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling) capabilities. The radio can operate on all marine channels in accordance with all regulations in the USA, Canada and international waters. This radio has a very slim design – It is only 3.5 inches (89 mm) deep – half the depth of comparable VHF radios on the market.

Easy installation – The Explorer GX1600 has an ultra thin, compact rear case, only 3.5” in depth. The rear case design means it is easy to flush mount the radio in tight areas or to bracket mount the radio due to it taking up less dash space.

Class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling) – The Standard Horizon GX1600B is an ITU-R M493 Class D VHF radio with a separate channel 70 receiver. This means that it is possible to receive DSC calls even when listening to communications.

DSC distress function – The radio transmits a digital mayday with information on vessel identification, latitude / longitude and time (with GPS connected). Additional types of calls can be made including individual, urgency, safety, position report and send.

Remote access microphone (RAM3) capability – You can connect a remote access microphone (not included) to the GX1600 radio in order to control the radio and DSC functions remotely from the remote microphone. You can also use the GX1600 as an intercom system between the remote access microphone and the radio.

Large screen display – The large screen, coupled with adjustable contrast and brightness make the screen very easy to read in all lighting conditions.

Scan and dual-watch – You can configure the radio to scan any number of channels with or without channel 16 as the priority channel. It is also possible to scan between a priority channel and one other channel.

Noise reduction technology – The radio features clear voice noise reduction technology which filters out unwanted background noises like engines and wind during transmission.

Navigate to waypoints – You can enter and save up to 100 waypoints. You can then select and navigate to those waypoints with a navigation compass display that shows your vessel’s speed, course, bearing and distance to the waypoint when connected to an external GPS (not included).

DSC Position Polling and NMEA input / output – Share position information with other DSC-equipped vessels using the position request and position reporting functions. You can request the position of another vessel or send your coordinates to the vessel you select. The GPS position of a received DSC distress call or position request call can be shown on a compatible GPS Chart plotter by connecting two NMEA wires. You can also configure the radio to automatically poll the GPS position of up to 4 stations.

Programmable channel names – The radio is preloaded with descriptive names of marine channels (examples: 16-Distress, 22A-USCG, 71-Pleasure…). You can customise the channel names as you wish.

GPS repeating – By connecting a GPS to the radio, position, date, and time can be displayed on the screen.

NOAA weather channels and alerts – 10 NOAA and Canadian weather channels are pre-programmed and selectable using the dedicated WX key. In addition, the radio can be set to monitor WX channels and give an audible alert to inform you of bad weather.

Waterproof and submersible – The unit is rated JIS8 which means it is fully submersible at 4.92 feet (1.5 metres) for 30 minutes.

Dimensions: 5.9 x 3.35 x 3.54 inches (150 x 85 x 90 mm)
Flush mount dimensions:  5.39 x 2.84 x 3.54 inches (137 x 72 x 90 mm)
Weight:  1.98 pounds (0.9 kilograms)

In the box

  • Standard Horizon GX1600B vhf marine radio.
  • Mounting bracket.
  • Power cord.
  • Flush mount template.
  • DSC warning sticker.
  • User manual.

Pros

  • Ultra thin design. It is only 3.5 inches (89 mm) deep which makes it easy to install in tight spaces.
  • Waterproof and submersible.
  • It’s possible to connect a remote access microphone (not included) to control the radio and DSC remotely.
  • Class D DSC – Receive DSC calls even when listening to communications.
  • NOAA weather channels and alerts.
  • GPS integration – Connect an external GPS (not included) to display coordinates on the radio’s screen and to transmit them automatically in case of a distress call.
  • Easy to read screen – The screen is large and the brightness and contrast can be adjusted.

Cons

  • The audio quality of the speaker could be better.

Uniden UM385

The Uniden UM385 is a fixed panel mount vhf marine radio with triple-watch features, DSC capabilities, a range of international marine channels and S.A.M.E Weather alert.

Customisable channel names – You can assign meaningful names to all marine channels.

Memory channel scan

Triple-watch feature – Monitor channel 16, 09, and current channel.

S.A.M.E. Weather Alert (Specific Area Message Encoding) – During a NOAA weather or emergency alert, a code for your specific location will alert you to severe conditions in your immediate area.

The DSC (Digital Selective Calling) distress feature  means you can press one button to call for help during an emergency. Full Class D DSC capability. High performance transceiver ensures clear communication and helps prevent and reject interference.

GPS integration – Connect an external GPS (not included) to input your coordinates to the radio and to transmit them automatically in case of a distress call or to other vessels via position send and request.

DSC Position send and request – Send and receive position information between you and other vessels.

Backlit keypad and display – The screen is easy to read even in poor light conditions.

Hi/Lo power switch – Choose between 1 watt and 25 watts output power.

Splashproof design – The radio has a waterproof rating of IPX4 / JIS4 which means the radio is splashproof. It will keep the rain out.

Size:   5 x 6.3 x 2.6 inches (127 x 160 x 66 mm)
Weight:  3.55 pounds (1.6 kilograms)

In the box

  • Uniden UM385 radio.
  • Mounting bracket and knobs.
  • Microphone hanger.
  • Mounting hardware.
  • Printed materials.

Pros

  • S.A.M.E. Weather Alert (Specific Area Message Encoding)
  • GPS integration – Connect an external GPS (not included) to be able to send your coordinates automatically via a DSC distress call.
  • The display is large and easy to read.
  • Channel names can be customised.

Cons

  • Waterproof rating of IPX4 / JIS4 -The radio is therefore splash proof but not submersible.

Conclusion

So what is the best vhf marine radio? If you want a handheld radio, I recommend the Standard Horizon HX870.  It has everything you need including an internal GPS.

If you’d prefer a fixed panel mount radio, I recommend the Standard Horizon GX1600B Explorer   With its compact design, large screen and good mix of features, it’s an excellent marine radio.

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