6 of the best VHF handheld marine radios for your boat

No skipper should be without a ‘mobile’ VHF, but which one is best for you? Fox Morgan put six to the test to help narrow your search…

best-vhf-marine-radios

Handheld VHF radios are must-have items on every boat owner’s kit list. Even if your boat has a fixed VHF marine radio, you are often away from the helm station or zipping ashore in the tender but still need to know what’s going on around you and be able to communicate with other craft in the area.

In large commercial shipping areas it’s particularly useful to know the intentions of larger ships as they dock or receive pilots. Calling up a marina to get your berth sorted is another hugely beneficial feature.

Most modern handhelds have dedicated M1 and M2 channels for this very purpose. Even more importantly, a handheld VHF radio is an essential safety tool for communicating with search and rescue services, especially in the event of having to abandon ship. That’s why a handheld VHF should be an essential item in every emergency grab bag.

But which handheld VHF suits you and your boating lifestyle? Do you need a top-of-the- range model with built-in AIS, GPS, DSC and CH70 distress alert capability or a more modest option with super-long battery life?

We tested six handheld VHFs to see how they performed, including two base models, two mid-range models and two top-of-the-range models, and weighed up their performance and features to help you decide.

How we tested the best VHF marine radios

Most VHF handhelds transmit at a standardised maximum power of 6W, with the user having the option to transmit at a choice of low (1W), medium (3W) or high (6W).

We tested all the radios for both transmitting and receiving volume and clarity over a set distance as well as a host of user functions such as wind noise interference, how easy they are to use single-handed, how long the battery lasts on standby when monitoring a busy channel, whether they float and if they have a burp function that clears the speaker grill of water.

However, testing a VHF handheld for signal range would be misleading and produce unreliable results. This is because VHF radio signals travel in straight lines and the range
is directly affected by the antenna’s height above sea level.

Standing at the helm of a RIB or sportsboat and transmitting at high power from a handheld VHF should achieve an average range of 10 miles, whilst someone on the top deck of a flybridge might achieve 15 miles with the same handset.

6 of the best VHF marine radios: Tested

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The Bluetooth connection allows you to make and receive calls from your phone, while the rewind function allows you to listen to the last 20 seconds again

Cobra HH500

The Cobra HH500 has been in long-term use with our Tech Editor Fox Morgan for the past six years (hence the used appearance) but remains a current model. It has been used as a backup to the main fixed set on their sail boat.

It charges via a drop-in cradle, which has two cable options, one for 12V and the other for 240V charging. As the second lightest handheld VHF in our test this lends the Cobra HH500 to being used where weight or size might be an issue, such as carrying it on an inflatable tender, kayak or paddleboard. It is also easily stowed in a grab bag for emergency use.

The Cobra HH500 comes with an extra battery tray that takes 5 x AA batteries. Bluetooth connectivity with a mobile phone also allows waterproof calls, meaning you can leave your phone in a dry bag or pocket out of harm’s way and still make and receive phone calls.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.Cobra_HH500_top

All of the radios have the option for an external microphone

Another great feature on this handheld VHF is the rewind-say-again button, which allows you to quickly re-listen to the previous transmission as the unit records the last 20 seconds. When sending and receiving transmissions, a signal strength scale appears on the large display.

In summary, the Cobra HH500 is a compact but feature-packed handheld VHF radio with a brightly illuminated large screen.

Specification

• Weight: 272g
• Dimensions: 131 x 72 x 47mm
• Waterproof rating: IPX7
• Floating/flashing: Yes/No
• GPS: No
• DSC: No
• AIS: No
• FM radio: No
• Max volume: 78dB
• Clarity at max volume: 7/10
• Battery life: 12 hrs
• Charging time: 5 hrs
• 12v/240v/USB/cradle: 12V/240V using cradle
• Extra battery tray: Yes

Reasons to buy: Compact, good value
Reasons to avoid: Not as clear as some

MBY rating: 4/5

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Icom M25 EURO

The IC-M25 is a lightweight, low-spec VHF handheld radio suitable for taking with you paddleboarding or in your tender as well as for augmenting a fixed VHF unit on a larger boat. The Float’n’Flash system works well too, so if you do drop it in the water you’ll be able to find and retrieve it easily.

Waterproof rated to IPX7 (up to 1m for 30 mins) you won’t want to leave this submerged for too long but it certainly will keep on functioning with the odd dunking. The slim design means that it is one of the lightest units on the market at a mere 225g.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.icom_25

USB cable gives multiple charging options, while the screen size is decent for a basic model

It comes with a simple micro-USB cable for convenient charging from a variety of electronic devices or a USB plug socket in much the same way as a mobile phone. Even though it is a small unit, it does still feature a decent- sized screen that is 30% larger than its predecessor, the IC-M23.

Battery life is impressive, too, offering 29 hours on standby, charging back up to full in three hours. It was also one of the loudest and clearest handsets in the entire test so it’s no surprise that this is currently one of the best-selling entry-level VHF handhelds in the UK.

Specifications

• Weight: 225g
• Dimensions: 145 x 65 x 40mm
• Waterproof rating: IPX7
• Floating/flashing: Yes/Yes
• GPS: No
• DSC: No
• AIS: No
• FM radio: No
• Max volume: 80dB
• Clarity at max volume: 8/10
• Battery life: 29hrs
• Charge time: 3hrs
• 12v/240v/USB: USB Direct to unit
• Extra battery tray: No

Reasons to buy: Clear, loud and simple
Reasons to avoid: Limited features

MBY rating: 4/5

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MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.standard_horizon_210_in_hand

Standard Horizon HX210

Standard Horizon’s HX210 is a great handheld radio at a good price and is a well-judged balance of weight vs battery life vs features.

The HX210 is charged via a cradle and uses two different cables for 12V or 240V power supplies. It locks quite securely into the cradle, too, so it won’t jump or fall out if it takes a knock, but isn’t the easiest to remove in a hurry.

We like having separate dedicated buttons for the volume and squelch, and the menu on is really easy to navigate. Finding the FM radio receiver is quick and easy so if you want to tune in for the weather forecast or the next episode of The Archers, you’ll be very happy with this VHF.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.standard_horizon_210

Built in FM radio is a nice extra, while clearly marked volume buttons makes quick adjustments easier

The bright orange fascia and PTT side buttons are a bonus for daytime visibility should it be dropped into the water. It is waterproof to IPX7 and floats face-up with a small strobe light activated on immersion.

Volume and clarity of received calls weren’t as good as some rivals on test but should still be more than adequate for most purposes.

This radio is an ideal companion for use in the tender or taking with you on your paddleboard or kayak. It’s also useful as a backup and to use on your main boat when away from the main set, such as when mooring up or on anchor.

Specifications

• Weight: 278g
• Dimensions: 140 x 66 x 41mm
• Waterproof rating: IPX7
• Floating/flashing: Yes/Yes
• GPS: No
• DSC: No
• AIS: No
• FM radio: Yes
• Max volume: 78dB
• Clarity at max volume: 6/10
• Battery life: 29hrs
• Charging time: 3hrs
• 12v/240v/USB: Yes/Yes
• Extra battery tray: No

Reasons to buy: Features, size and price
Reasons to avoid: Least clear at its maximum volume

MBY rating: 4/5

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MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.icom_37_water

The sturdy casing is built to commercial standards, while the battery life is outstanding for a handheld VHF

Icom M37E

This VHF unit is a real workhorse and has a sturdy, no-nonsense feel to it. As we turned the volume up to hear it above a noisy engine it continued right up to 81dB without any distortion or feedback, retaining enough clarity to hear it over the background noise.

As with all of our radios on test, there’s always a compromise and in this radio it is perhaps the physical size that takes the hit in return for a supremely impressive battery life.

It monitored a busy VTS channel round the clock for more than two days without any sign of the battery fading. Obviously if we were transmitting large amounts of chatter then this battery life would be much reduced, but there’s no doubt this would outlast all the others.

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The M37E also has an additional battery tray taking 3 AAA batteries, making this a suitable contender for grab bag/emergency bag.

Charging is also versatile and whilst it uses a drop-in cradle, the cable itself has a USB head so you can plug it into any suitable power supply with a USB socket, including 12V, 240V and portable power banks.

It has the now familiar Icom Float’n’Flash system, which means it floats on its back with the screen automatically flashing when dunked.

This robust and well-founded radio gets the full 5 stars from us. Whilst it might not have all the bells and whistles, it performs exceptionally well at the essential core functions and feels like it will last a lifetime.

Specifications

• Weight: 299g
• Dimensions: 150mm x 67mm x 45mm
• Waterproof rating: IPX7
• Floating/flashing: Yes/Yes
• GPS: No
• DSC: No
• AIS: No
• FM radio: No
• Max volume: 81dB
• Clarity at max volume: 8/10
• Battery life: 48hrs+
• Charge time: 3hrs
• 12v/240v/USB: USB cradle
• Extra battery tray: Yes

Reasons to buy: Tough, reliable, clear
Reasons to avoid: Relatively big

MBY rating: 5/5

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MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.standard_horizon_890_vertical

Standard Horizon HX890

Standard Horizon’s HX890 is a feature-rich, top spec handheld VHF, with impressive functionality. It features a large screen, which is easy to read and points to the array of functions available.

The handheld radio floats with a highly visible strobe light activated when in the water and is fully waterproof – it’s the only set on test rated to IPX8 for continuous immersion.

The HX890 has a built-in GPS receiver, something you will not find in other models offering less functionality, and is DSC-capable – so you can send a digital message to other DS receivers, including your GPS coordinates.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.standard_horizon_890_rear_view

Distress button sends your position using built-in GPS

If you send a distress message, it will also automatically activate alarms on all DSC-capable receivers. We like the dedicated volume buttons and the squelch is easy to find and falls naturally under the finger next to the push to transmit (PTT) button.

Overall it is well laid out and easy to operate. The menu is easy to navigate and the emergency distress button is easy to locate on the rear and can be activated single-handed.

We got 27 hours from this on standby monitoring VTS ch12 in a busy Southampton shipping port and the clarity of the speaker, even when turned up to max, though not the loudest in our test group, was excellent.

It comes with an additional battery tray too, which takes 5 x AAA standard disposable or rechargeable batteries, so it’s possible to include this in your grab bag inventory for emergency use.

Specifications

• Weight: 310g
• Dimensions: 147 x 70 x 40
• Waterproof rating: IPX8
• Floating/flashing: Yes/Yes
• GPS: Yes
• DSC: Yes
• AIS: No
• FM radio: Yes
• Max volume: 79dB
• Clarity at max volume: 8/10
• Battery life: 27hrs
• Charge time: 4hrs
• 12v/240v/USB: Yes/Yes/No
• Extra battery tray: Yes

Reasons to buy: High-spec, good value
Reasons to avoid: Bulkier than some

MBY rating: 5/5

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MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.icom_94_in_hand

Built-in DSC and AIS (a UK first) means it can be used as main VHF on a small boat

Icom M94DE

Read our Icom M94DE review

The flagship model from Icom is this DSC-equipped handheld radio, which is also the first of its kind to have AIS built in. This makes it quite a chunky item to hold. Unsurprisingly, it is also the heaviest on test.

But this isn’t designed to be a lightweight radio, it is a heavy weight in terms of functionality too, offering the widest array of features of any handheld VHF radio on the market today.

The menus are easy to navigate and pulling up the AIS details gives you a list of targets with their CPAs and another screen offering a radar visual with targets in relation to your position.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.icom_94_ais_radar_screen

AIS radar target screen means you can use this VHF unit to navigate towards an AIS- equipped MOB beacon

If you frequently find yourself in amongst shipping or commercial vessels and want to know who that is bearing down on you and would quite like to have a quick word with them, you can call them directly.

It’s also a cost-effective way to add this functionality to your boat without having to install a fixed AIS set. Just to be clear, though, this only receives AIS signals and does not transmit them.

The DSC function is as per standard with a distress alert button located to the rear of the unit near the top above the holster. We found this a little fiddly to access and retain a good grip on the unit with one hand.

The M94DE also has the usual array of features expected in a top-spec handheld radio but all of this comes at a compromise in terms of battery life.

We managed to get 16 hours from it when on standby, monitoring a busy VTS channel. It’s supplied with a cradle and 240V charger as standard but if you want a 12V cable too, it’s sold separately as an optional extra.

Specifications

• Weight 367g
• Dimensions 155 x 70 x 50mm
• Waterproof rating IPX7
• Floating/flashing: Yes/Yes
• GPS: Yes
• DSC: Yes
• AIS: Yes
• FM radio: Yes
• Max volume: 78dB
• Clarity at max volume: 8/10
• Battery life: 16hrs
• Charge time 4 hours
• 12v/240v/USB: No/Yes/No
• Extra battery tray: No

Reasons to buy: Exceptional spec
Reasons to avoid: Bulky size, shorter battery life than some

MBY rating: 4/5

Buy it now from Amazon UK

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Buy it now from Gael Force Marine

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.icom_94_DSC_alert_button

All the handheld VHF sets on test performed to a good standard and any of them would be a sound investment for novice and experienced boat owners alike. Your choice will depend on what you want to use it for and what your priorities are likely to be.

Conclusions: Which were the best VHF marine radios on test?

All of the radios performed well on test and there’s not a dud amongst them. But they do have their different roles to play.

Some are best suited for recreational use on small water craft such as tenders, jetskis and paddleboards where there isn’t the option of a fixed set, while others are great for dedicated use as the primary set on slightly larger open craft such as sportsboats and RIBs or as a back-up to a fixed set on a bigger boat.

We could argue that everyone should go for the top-spec model because who doesn’t want all of those seemingly essential functions?

But often, all you really need is something simpler and often smaller and lighter with a longer battery life. Consider which features are important to you and choose your set accordingly.

MBY277.test_VHF_grouptest.standard_horizon_890_vertical

The Standard Horizon HX890 really impressed us with its ergonomic shape and excellent battery life, giving us more than 24 hours of standby time.

We would also be confident of using this as our primary set on an open sportsboat or RIB. The float function and strobe light is particularly bright in darker light so if you were to drop it over the side, there’s a good chance of finding it easily.

The direct volume controls are also nice to have, rather than having to toggle between squelch and volume, as seen on some other models. The DSC distress alert button is nicely located for single-handed use too, should you ever need to activate it.

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At the budget end of the spectrum we were impressed by the Icom M25. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it is one of the best-selling radios on the market at the moment.

It packs a decent punch in terms of volume and clarity, even in noisy environments, and is easily charged with its convenient USB cable that negates the need for different plug types or even a charging holster.

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But the outstanding performer in our group test is the Icom M37E. What a great piece of kit this is. It scored highly in our testing criteria across the board, from ergonomics to ease of use and battery life. We ran this radio on standby monitoring a busy VTS channel for three days and still the battery kept on going.

The charging is via a cradle but that cradle is powered up by a USB cable, so you can plug in to 12V or 240V. It’s versatile and whilst it doesn’t have DSC functionality, if you need a simple, reliable VHF for a wide array of boating activities this should keep on delivering for years to come.

It may not be best suited as a main set for a sportsboat or RIB but is perfect as a back-up or for use in a tender or grab bag. It even comes with a battery tray for disposable batteries, so you can zip-lock some spares in the grab bag in case you do end up in a liferaft.

Key VHF radio stats

Cobra HH500 Standard Horizon HX210 Icom M37E Standard Horizon HX890 Icom M94DE
Weight 272g 278g 299g 310g 367g
Height 131mm 140mm 150mm 147mm 155mm
Width 72mm 66mm 67mm 70mm 70mm
Depth 47mm 41mm 45mm 40mm 50mm
Waterproof IPX7 IPX7 IPX7 IPX8 IPX7
Floating/flash Yes/No Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes
GPS No No No Yes Yes
DSC No No No Yes Yes
FM radio No Yes No Yes Yes
AIS No No No No Yes
Max volume 78dB 78dB 81dB 79dB 78dB
Clarity 7/10 6/10 8/10 8/10 8/10
Battery life* 12hrs 29hrs Over 48hrs 27hrs 16hrs
Cable types 12V/240V USB USB USB 240V
Battery tray Yes/5 x AA No Yes/3 x AAA Yes/5 x AAA No
MBY Rating 4/5 4/5 5/5 5/5 4/5
RRP £149.99 £154.60 £229.95 £239.80 £329.95

*On standby monitoring VTS CH12 in busy shipping port

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This article 6 of the best VHF handheld marine radios for your boat appeared first on Motor Boat & Yachting.

Source: https://www.mby.com/gear/best-vhf-handheld-marine-radio-boat-122377