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Best VHF Marine Radios Reviewed
Owning and operating a VHF marine radio is an essential part of sailing a boat, where responsibility is a continual priority. On the water, staying up to date with weather reports, contacting other boats and relaying emergency needs are all essential tasks to keep on top of.
For that, the Rowing Inc team have reviewed some of the best VHF marine radios to ensure you are well equipped on the water.
The truth is that the best radio for one person may not be the best for another, despite them operating similar boats with similar needs. Taste and appearance is a large part of it, and can be best considered while you sort through the designs and potential form factors available from one model to the next.
How many operating channels you can tune into, how waterproof the unit is, if you’d prefer it to be a stationary fixed unit or a handheld device, and if features like AIS matter to you will all influence your decision.
Finding the perfect boat radio is often a precautionary investment, and one we all hope is never needed in a worst-case scenario. Keeping safety supplies like life rafts and marine radios is very practical, but the right radio for your exact situation is fairly unpredictable given the erratic nature of weather conditions. For most sailors, there is a balance to find between performance and affordability. With that said, investing in a marine radio that can face into the worst-case scenario is a wise choice.
Additionally, owning one or more radios will be a likely outcome throughout your boating adventures. With time you will come to have a feel for the equipment you enjoy using, and feel safe having as part of your sailing toolkit.
A close look at the models here will help illuminate those still undecided, and careful consideration of the below reviews will help you come to a practiced and informed decision. We hope our experience will give insight to others setting off on your own boating journey.
How VHF Radios Work
VHF (Very High Frequency) radios rely on line of sight to transmit and receive signals. Accordingly, anything that obstructs the line of sight like mountains, forests, even the curvature of the earth, will also block VHF signals. If multiple signals are being transmitted, VHF radios only receive the strongest incoming signal. Stronger VHF signals will overpower the weaker signals and your VHF radio will only receive the strongest transmissions.
Along with personal flotation devices, VHF radios are an essential and vitally important safety item on any boat. With a range that spans out to between 5-30 miles, VHF radios provide reliability that far out-performs your cell phone on open expanses of water. When you need the fastest possible response, a VHF marine radio is the by far the most reliable means of communication.
But VHF marine radios are not only limited to emergency calling. Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, allows for communication with non-emergency vessels under the protocols of safety within the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. Whether you need to transmit position requests for towing services, converse with other vessels, check weather alerts, or privately send the location of a productive fishing location, DSC provides a connection with other vessels that you won’t find elsewhere.
Top VHF Marine Radio Features To Consider
- Battery Power – Where your power supply comes from is an important consideration. Fixed-mount VHF radios are supplied power from your boat’s battery, so operating time is only limited by your main power supply. Marine VHF radios draw about 5 amps while transmitting at the maximum 25 watt power, and around 0.5 amp when receiving. In other words, it would take a long time to exhaust most 12V marine batteries. However, if your battery system fails, so does your VHF radio. This is why we recommend always keeping an additional handheld VHF radio on board, for backup in an emergency.
- Antenna – Since line of sight plays a vital role in transmitting VHF signals, mounting your antenna as high as possible will maximize the operating range of your VHF marine radio. The best location would be on the uppermost position on a mast, and it is vital to use large diameter shielded coax cable with properly installed connectors to minimize signal loss.
- Automatic identification system (AIS) – Vessels carrying automatic identification systems provide tracking information to AIS base stations along coast lines, or when out of range, through a growing number of AIS receiver satellites. AIS systems track your vessel’s unique identification, position, course, and speed by integrating a VHF transceiver with a positioning system, such as a GPS receiver.
- Channels – VHF radios have 55 channels with U.S., Canadian and International menus. Boaters can listen to any of them, but transmission is limited to about a dozen. The majority of channels are reserved for government, shipping industries, or Coast Guard use.
- Maximum power – Fixed-mount VHF radios are legally limited to 25 watts or less of power. And since stronger VHF signals will overpower the weaker signals, all VHF marine radios provide the option to transmit at 1 watt of power. This practice prevents short-range conversations from causing interference with other boaters. Some VHF radios offer 1,3 or 6 Watt output options, but it’s marine etiquette to try to reach your party on 1-watt before switching to higher a output.
Top VHF Marine Radios Comparison Chart
Best VHF Marine Radio
The Garmin VHF 210 marine radio is known for its convenience and reliability above all. It’s perhaps one of the best radios for new boating users, because a bright and attractive display offers easy accessibility and readability within multiple light levels.
The Garmin VHF 210 comes with a Standard Class D digital selective calling (DSC) functionality and 25 W of transmit power. Not only this, but a detachable microphone allows for easy communication and comfort in use. The 250i transmit power backed up by that 25 W of sustainable transmit potential gives a broad and wide broadcasting range.
The water rating is IPX7, which means said radio is protected being submerged in water up to one meter. This can help you during bad storms or can allow you a wide array of areas in which to place the radio on your boat, especially in no-canopy areas, but of course, good sense will prevail.
For convenience, the radio boasts immediate and out-of-the-box tuning to all international marine channels and up to 10 NOAA weather channels. This should enable any new radio user the chance to become familiar with these frequencies and to browse them as appropriate.
Additionally, the appearance and design of the radio is one that makes convenience an ally. Due to its small stature and relatively small power requirements, it can be placed most anywhere. The convenient stand allows it to be placed in a range of tight boating surface setups, and the satisfactorily long power cable allows for further versatility in placement.
The radio comes with a mic hanger, protective cover, flush mount gasket and documentation as standard. As such, it’s perhaps one of the most prominent choices for any long-time or beginner boater. Whether you are just becoming accustomed to radio protocol on the waves, or are well-versed, the Garmin VHF 210 has proven performance and reliability when it counts.
Safety is absolutely paramount on any boat, be that a large or small vessel, commercial or personal. Sometimes, a fixed marine radio setup is not appropriate for someone who may own or operate several boats. Perhaps you are riding with another boat, or even training newcomers in their boating responsibilities.
Not only that, but it’s important to remember that not all vessels are equipped to power stationary radios, and so a portable item like the Standard Horizon HX870 can provide a necessary middle ground.
In these cases, a floating VHF radio can be the most worthwhile and dependable choice. This VHF radio comes standard with a clip on the back and a short tether with carabiner, so you can attach said radio in a variety of places that will allow access to your radio within seconds.
This DSC radio offers a built-in GPS and immediate red emergency button functionality, meaning immediate distress calls to the coast guard are possible.
Programming the radio with verified channels is easy and accessible, as well as functionality for porting a DSC address book via PC software. No radio is complete or even justified without clean, crisp audio quality, and so the noise-canceling function is appreciated, as it allows crisp and clear communication with those across all frequencies.
The VHF radio is equipped with an 1800 mAh Li-Ion Battery affording long term usage, as well as a three-hour charging station. As the unit is more portable, it offers an IPX8 waterproof rating, which should enable you full versatility and protection against nearly any kind of water exposure. This means that entering the water with the radio on your person is possible, although of course, not an ideal situation to be in.
The Lowrance Link-8 model offers a range of features, perhaps the most notable of those being an integral AIS, which is an automatic tracking system that allows for real-time tracking information and immediate transmission for emergency assistance.
The AIS feature can supplement your marine radar and help with navigating the waves most appropriately without worrying about interfering in local seafaring traffic. However, remember that this is not a foolproof solution because not all other vessels will be equipped with a dedicated AIS transponder. This means that good sailing sense will always prevail.
Audio quality is crisp and clear, and projects the volume nicely. This model will be ideal for anyone struggling to hear over a loud boat engine or turbulent weather conditions.
Like the Standard Horizon HX870, the Lowrance is equipped with an immediate distress signal allowing for quick, easy and foolproof mayday alerts to a dedicated emergency frequency, giving you the chance to communicate with the coast guard in a matter of minutes.
Additionally, Lowrance are known for their clear and consistent support options, allowing for an easier experience should you run into any problems. This makes the Lowrance a fitting model for anyone hoping to apply the best sea-faring etiquette on the waves, and this is always backed by providing stellar safety and a reputation for quality.
You cannot overstate the importance of convenience and ease of use when it comes to equipment that saves lives. All of the radios on this list have saved and will save on the water, but perhaps none of them have the same comfort and ease of use as the Uniden MHS126. A JIS8 submersible radio that floats to the surface of the water when submerged, it’s not hard to assess just how thoroughly useful this can be, especially if traveling in smaller boats.
The Uniden is once again programmed with all International, USA and Canadian marine channels, allowing for ease of access for newcomers or adjustment capacities for boat veterans alike. The LCD screen is bright and easily legible, shining bright within a variety of light levels. Finally, the Uniden radio grip is easy for even wet hands to keep hold of, allowing for practical survival use. For that, you may also be keen to know that the radio holds an immediate and very bright strobe light functionalities, especially useful if wishing to transmit your SOS signal or attract rescue boats. Glow in the dark buttons also allow for an easy means in which to operate the unit at night. Again, IPX8 waterproofing permits continual submerging into the water, boasting 5 foot of depth for up to half an hour.
11 hours of battery life allow for a complete day of usage, and if you take time to charge the spare battery in the included station you’ll be able to switch completely and double that duration.
Perhaps the most visually striking of the VHF radios approximated in this list, the Cobra HH350 Floating Long Range Marine Radio is a powerhouse of practicality and good design without losing out on features. It has a similar floating mechanism to the Uniden, yet has a choice of 1,3 and 6-watt output options meaning that it holds a variety of short and long wave applications.
Additionally, an ergonomic design allows for easy handling and the BURP innovation allows for frequency vibrations to clear water from the speaker, especially after being submerged in a protective capacity thanks to the JIS7 protection. This can mean that radio maintenance is minimal, and that can mean all the difference when in a troublesome situation.
Light usage can allow for the Cobra VHF to operate for up to two days or more, but of course, it’s best to keep the included charging capacities to hand in order to keep this vital piece of equipment functional. That being said, a radio offering that kind of battery life can be ideal for longer journeys. The strong belt clip and rubberized protective surrounding means that secure holding and light accidental drops needn’t be worried about.