Best Marine VHF Radio of 2018 – Buying Guide and Professional Advice

Now that you have your dream boat, you need to have a marine VHF radio before you can go out safely into the ocean. So what is a VHF radio and why do you need one?

A VHF radio  stands for Very High Frequency radio also known as a two way marine radio. It is the single most important communication device you need to buy and always have on you or your boat. A few miles offshore it might be the only way for you to communicate and send messages. Read our article to find our what are the best VHF marine radios in 2018 and what features you need to look for.

Best two way marine radio review

Why VHF Radio And Not Just A Cell Phone?

The cell phones are designed to operate using cell towers that are placed on land. Most of the time, the location of the cell tower placement will be more inland to maximize land coverage. That means that a typical coverage of 25-45 miles might be actually a fraction of that distance due to a tower placement. Another disadvantage of cell phone is that even if you do have cell reception, in case of emergency you will be calling the Coast Guard via regular phone call. 

A VHF marine radio has a dedicated channel (channel 16) to communicate with coast guards and other boats in the area and it will send distress signal with a push of a button (with your GPS location). What happens if you are overboard? A typical cell phone does not float and many are not waterproof. Most good quality VHF radios are IPX7 and IPX8 rated and can float. Some higher end radios will also blink emergency light so you can easily spot it on the ocean surface. Again, this is NOT something a cell phone is designed for. The Coast Guard urges every boater to use their VHF-FM radio to make distress calls.

Do I Need A Fixed Mount Or Portable VHF radio?

The two major types of marine radios are handheld and fixed mount VHF radios. For smaller boats and kayaks, a handheld VHF radio will be suitable. They are compact and provide coverage of up to 5 miles. If you have a larger boat, a fixed mount VHF is a better choice since it will have more power output = longer operational range (up to 25 Watts of transmitting power), ability to place external antenna (even greater transmit distance), AIS, hailer and other features limited to fixed mount radios.

FIXED MOUNT RADIOS, as you might expect, are mounted on a boat, require a power source from a boat as well as an external antenna. They are capable of transmitting up to 25 watts, which is the legal limit of a VHF radio. The higher end models have AIS and Hailer which can be useful in heavy traffic areas. Paired with a good antenna, a fixed mount VHF radio can cover distance up to 20 miles away.

Standard Horizon GX2200 vhf two way marine radio

BEST SELLER - Standard Horizon GX 2200

HANDHELD VHF RADIOS are great for smaller boats and if you plan on being close to shore. There is no need for an external antenna and people love the portability of them. The power will be limited to about 6 watts and approximately 5 mile distance (depending on weather conditions and line of sight). Besides the decrease of power, most other features that you find on fixed mount marine radios can also be found on handheld radios.

Standard Horizon HX870 marine radio review

BEST SELLER - Standard Horizon HX870

List of Best VHF Marine Radios

So now you know that a cell phone is not designed to be your main communication device on the water, let us help you decide which 2 way radio is right for you. Here is our pick of the 6 best VHF marine radios with rating and reviews (includes handheld and fixed mount radios).

VHF Radio Name

Type

GPS

Power

Floating/Waterproofing

Handheld

Yes

6/2/1 Watts

Floating/IPX8

Handheld

No

5/2.5/1 Watts

No/JSI8

Handheld

No

6/3/1 Watts

Floating/IPX7

Fixed Mount

Yes

25/1 Watts

Submersible/JIS7

Fixed Mount

No

25/1 Watts

Splash Proof/IPX4

Fixed Mount

Yes

25/1 Watts

Submersible/IPX7

Best VHF Marine Radio

This is one of the best VHF handheld radios on the market today with high-end features and beautiful display!

The Standard Horizon HX870 is a powerful 6 watt floating handheld VHF radio with built in GPS. Internal 66 channel GPS receiver allows you to transmit your coordinates in case of emergency as well as being useful in day-to-day operation. With this radio you are able to log your location with "LOGGER" function,  store up to 200 waypoints, send your location to other DSC equipped radios, receive coordinates from other radios, and many other things. The radio meets ITU-R M493 Class D DSC and has a noise canceling for transmitting and receiving audio providing clear communication. 

The Standard Horizon HX870 is rated IPX8 and comes with MOB (Man over-board) function as well as emergency strobe light. Even if the radio is off, it will turn on, flash an emergency light and send your GPS coordinates if dropped into water. This radio comes with 1800 mAh Li-Ion battery that can be fully charged in only 3 hours as well as an alkaline battery tray for use with 5 x AAA batteriesThis is a higher end marine radio that caters to serious boaters who want latest features, great audio quality and built in GPS.


Some of the features include:

  • Floating with 6/2/1 Watts of adjustable power
  • Internal GPS with waypoint navigation
  • Separate Receiver for CH70
  • Noise-canceling for both transmitting and receiving audio
  • Integrated  66 Channel WAAS GPS Receiver
  • Support for USB
  • Strobe Function
  • Submersible and MOB (man-over-board) function
  • W 2.44" x H 5.43" x D 1.69"

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • Over 181 Total Customer reviews on Amazon
  • 71% of Customers Rated the Radio 5 Stars
  • Reliable
  • All the features you will ever need
  • Large easy to read display
  • Waterproof and floating
best entry level VHF radio uniden mhs75 vhf radio

Rugged, reliable and affordable - this is a great handheld radio for someone who does not want to break the bank.

The Uniden MHS75 is a submersible 5-watt VHF Marine Radio and contains many features and accessories such as a rapid clip-on DC charger and lithium-Ion Battery. Long battery life up to 12 hours allows you to be on the water all day without worrying about your battery running dead. Additionally, having all the NOAA weather ensures you will be up to date with weather conditions. The JSI8 waterproof rating allows you to submerge the radio in up to 5 ft of water for 30 minutes without damage.  Instant channel triple watch and memory channel scan allow you to monitor all relevant channels as needed to ensure you do not miss an important weather update or transmission. The ability to switch from 1 to 2.5 to 5 watts of power allows you to conserve power when you are closer to shore. The back lit LCD screen is easy to read even during stormy weather. Finally, a 3 year warranty gives you peace of mind knowing that it is protected.

 Due to its low price this a great option for boaters looking to purchase a budget radio for a smaller boat or as a backup radio on a larger craft that can withstand rough weather and everyday use. Experienced boaters who are looking for more features such as GPS, emergency strobes etc may want to consider the HX870.

Some of the features include:

  • All USA, International, and Canada Channels
  • All NOAA weather channels with weather alerts
  • JSI8 Waterproof level submersible to 5ft for 30 minutes
  • Instant Channel 16/9 Triple Watch
  • Dual, Triple, Quad Watch Operation
  • Memory Channel Scan
  • Clip-On DC Charger
  • 1 / 2.5 / 5 Watt switchable power output
  • Back Lit Easy to Read LCD Display
  • Limited 3 Year Warranty
  • W2.49" x H4.57" x D1.53"

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • Over 550 positive reviews on Amazon
  • 61% of Customers rated this radio 5 Stars
  • Large Easy to Read Display
  • Very reasonably priced
  • Reliable
  • Long Transmission Range
best value handheld vhf radio

High power output, floating body design with  large  easy to read display makes it one of the best mid-priced handheld VHF radios on the market in 2018.

The Cobra MRHH 350 FLT Floating VHF Radio is one of the best mid-priced radios currently available to boaters. The 350 FLT has great signal quality with high power output (selectable between 1/3/6 watts) in a very compact body. The compact design of this radio also makes it very easy to carry around and store on smaller vessels and kayaks. Engeneers at Cobra made sure that the compact body would not compromise its floating ability. And yes, it floats and the orange inserts on the body makes it easy to spot it. 

The Cobra MRHH350 has all NOAA weather channels with weather alerts ensuring that you can track storms when your on the water. The Cobra even has a "Burp" feature that vibrates helping to remove water from the speaker grill and reduce distortion.

Noise cancelling microphone, all US/Canada/International marine channels, illuminated function keys as well as a reasonable price makes this a great value among portable VHF radios manufactured by a reputable manufacturer. 

Some of the features include:

  • Selectable 6/3/1 Watt power for short and long range communication 
  • All NOAA weather channels
  • USA/International/Canada Channels
  • Submersible to 3.3 ft. for 30 minutes
  • Button Key Lock
  • Matrix Display
  • AA Battery Compatible
  • Instant Channel 16/9 with triple-watch
  • Noise Canceling Microphone
  • Limited 3 Year Warranty
  • 120v/12v Charger Included
  • W2.66" x H4.75" x D2.09"

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • exclamation-triangle
    Range was not along as expected
  • exclamation-triangle
    Batteries Are Proprietary And Expensive
best fixed mount vhf radio

If you are looking for a fully featured fixed mount VHF radio - look no further! GX2200 has all the high-end features including AIS, GPS and huge easy to read display.

The Standard Horizon GX2200 is packed with high-end features: 2 integrated AIS receivers, integrated 66 Channel GPS receiver and full AIS/GPS matrix display. If you are someone who is constantly boating in high traffic areas, the AIS feature is a must. The 30 Watt PA/Loud hailer is useful for communicating with other vessels and is preprogrammed. The model is a little larger than your typical radio, yet you will enjoy the bigger display and the layout of the front panel. You can also get an optional RAM3 Mic for it as well.

While the GX2200 has been around for a while it is still our pick for the best overall fixed mount VHF radio as it contains all the needed features as well as some premium features such as GPS that are typically found on other more expensive models. The rugged construction and 3 year warranty ensure that this radio will serve you for many seasons on the water. The IPX7 rating also ensures that no storms rough water will damage the radio.

One of the best features of the GX2200 is the easy to use menus and navigation as well as the large back-lit display that allows easy reading in any weather conditions. These features in addition to the above and great price point make this the best overall fixed mount radio currently available.

Some of the features include:

  • AIS (Automatic Identification System) receiver
  • 66 Channel WAAS GPS antenna
  • Programmable collision avoidance alarms
  • Class D DSC
  • 30 Watt PA/Loud Hailer (preprogrammed fog signals and listen back functions)
  • ClearVoice noise cancelling
  • GPS Compass
  • User customizable keys for easy operation
  • Backlit display and keys
  • Optional connection for RAM3+ second station remote microphone
  • Submersible IPX7 front panel
  • 3 year warranty
  • 7.1"W x 3.1"H x 6.3"D

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • exclamation-triangle
    Does not broadcast AIS
  • exclamation-triangle
    External RAM3 remote controller is not included with this package
best budget fixed mount vhf radio

All USA, Canada and international channels, weather alerts, selectable 25/1W power output and NMEA 0183 makes it a great bargain among fixed mount VHF radios.

The Uniden UM380 fixed mount VHF marine radio is one of the best budget VHF radios currently available which is why it gets our pick for best budget VHF radio. The UM380 is compact, available in 2 colors (black and white), features all USA, Canada and International channels, supports S.A.M.E weather alerts and has triple watch functions. The maximum power output on the Uniden UM380 is 25 Watts, which is what you would expect from a fixed mount VHF radio. You can also select 1W for short range communication if needed.

Connected to a GPS receiver (not included) via NMEA 0183, you will be able to make DSC transmissions on this radio. The display is quite large and bright, the keys are back-lit and the 2 extra-large knobs (Volume and Squelch) are easily found even without looking at the radio. The Uniden UM380 is rated JIS7 and comes with a 3-year warranty.

One of the most attractive features of the UM380 is its very reasonable price. While you won't get built-in GPS or many of the other features found in more expensive fixed mount radios if you are only out on your boat a few times during the season; you never go far from shore and are not on the ocean this can be a good choice to help save you money. For these reaons this gets our pick for the best budget fixed mount vhf radio.

Some of the features include:

  • All NOAA weather channels
  • USA/International/Canada Channels
  • Submersible to 3.3 ft for 30 minutes
  • Rugged and Durable Construction
  • Channel Scan/Memory Scan
  • NMEA 0183 Input/ Output
  • Reasonably Priced
  • Limited 3 Year Warranty
  • 6.5"W x 2.95H x 5.08"D

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • 530 Total Customer reviews on Amazon
  • 70% of Customers Rated the Radio 5 Stars
  • NMEA interface
  • ​Excellent Unit For the Price
best value fixed mount vhf radio

Compact, powerful, built in GPS receiver and NMEA 0183 interface are just some of the reasons why this is our BEST VALUE fixed mount VHF radio.

The Icom IC-M324G is a compact VHF fixed mount radio with top notch performance and all the necessary features included in its compact body. Model M324G (look for the G at the end of model number) has a built in GPS receiver, that will allow you to see current position and time as well as make DSC calls. For people who care about connectivity options, this model has the MNEA 0183 interface. The large high definition dot-matrix display makes it easy to read information and the rotary selection/keypad is a breeze to use. This is really a great value radio; packing many higher end features like the built in GPS receiver.

If you’re looking for a feature packed radio that has built in GPS, IPX7 protection and the NMEA 0183 interface then this is currently one of the best radios you can buy. The features it comes with and its modest price point make it a great choice.

If you take your boat out often (and/or offshore) and are looking for a reasonable VHF radio with the features you need the IC-M324G is the radio for you.

Some of the features include:

  • 25 Watts output power
  • Built in GPS Receiver
  • Intuitive User Interface
  • Submersible design with IPX7 protection
  • AquaQuake water draining system
  • NMEA 0183 interface
  • Dot-Matrix Display
  • Compatible with MA-500TF AIS transponde
  • 3 Year Waterproof Warranty
  • 7.1W x 3.2"H x 4.7"D

But what do actual users say about this radio? Are they actually happy with their purchase? Let’s find out the pros, cons and what reviewers are saying about this radio. Below are the most common pros and cons that people have stated in their reviews on Amazon.

  • PROS
  • CONS
  • exclamation-triangle
    Flush mount clips are not included

Some Things To Consider When Buying A VHF Radio

There are many different types of two way marine radios as well as many different price points. Below is a description of the most important features and differences between the different types of two way marine radios. This should help you decide which marine radio is best for you.

A lot of boaters prefer to have a back up type of setup - having a hand held radio and a fixed mount marine radio. Remember, anything may happen and it is better to take extra precautions to be safe.

What Is The Power & Range Of VHF Radios?

As we mentioned before, fixed mount marine radios are capable of transmitting up to 25 watts of power. Handheld marine radios will have on average 3 to 6 watts of power capability.

There are many different factors that influence actual marine radio usable range, but the most significant factor is antenna. VHF marine radios use radio frequency range between 156.0 and 174 Mhz. These frequencies are most effective in line of sight. Typically, standing in the cockpit of a boat, the distance to the horizon for an average adult is about three miles. The higher the antenna placement, the further distance to the horizon is, thus increasing usable range of your marine radio.

In ideal conditions, you should expect 4-6 mile range from a handheld VHF radio and 16-20 miles from a fixed mount radio with well placed antenna.

Do I Need To Get An Antenna?

Yes, you do need to get an antenna for fixed mount radios, but not for handheld radios since they are shipped with one. When choosing an antenna for a radio, you need to look into its dB rating. A higher “gain” means a more focused area of transmissions and is recommend for more stable powerboats on calm seas. A lower “gain” is better for sailboats.

The antenna length is typically anywhere from 2-8 ft. Sail boats tend to have 3’5’ antennas, while power boats opt for 8ft.

The higher end marine antennas are made out of fiberglass, while lower quality antennas use nylon ferrules.

For more information about VHF marine antennas, please visit this page.

marine VHF antenna

DSC Function

Digital Selective Calling or (DSC), allows mariners to instantly send an automatically formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard or other rescue authority with a push of a button. By law, all fixed mount marine radios are required to have this feature. You will need to apply for MMSI number ($25 application fee), Maritime Mobile Service Identity. The unique ID is linked to a vessel, not a radio. You need to enter the 9 digit code when you program your radio.

DSC also uses your GPS location when transmitting a signal. Most higher end marine radios will have GPS built in. If not, you should invest in a GPS device and connect it to your marine radio to take full advantage of the DSC feature.

Unfortunately, recent statistics shows that almost 90% of DSC compatible radios aren't programmed. We urge you to set it up for your own safety.

Integrated GPS – Benefits And Should I Get A Radio With Built In GPS:

Having a VHF radio with built in GPS is convenient and will provide you with some additional safety and navigation capabilities. You should know that not all marine radios have GPS built in. Usually, it is found in more expensive radios like our best rated Standard Horizon HX870 (portable VHF) and most fixed mount VHF radios will offer a connection to a GPS receiver via connector or have a built in GPS receiver. The ICOM M424G is an example of a fixed mount radio that has built in GPS so you won’t have to connect it to external one.

Besides providing information about location on the display, GPS utilizes several other functions of the VHF radio: DSC calls with automatically included coordinates, GPS compass, waypoint navigation, and date/time information. You should look for a GPS receiver with 66 channels for more accurate and reliable information.

Dual Watch/Tri-Watch

Refers to the amount of channels that can be actively monitored during operation. You are required to monitor channel 16 all the time; which is the emergency channel. With the tri-watch function, you can monitor a 3rdchannel, typically channel 09 which is used for general hailing operations. If there is an emergency being broadcasted over channel 16, a VHF radio will automatically mute other channels and switch over to channel 16 so that you can hear the message.

Weather Alerts

These are alerts provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They use service satellites and polar orbiting satellites to help predict the weather and track storms. If your radio is equipped with weather alerts, it will monitor the weather channel and will notify you if an alert signal is sent by the NOAA. It is a good idea to test your weather alert channel by tuning to tuning to it  to the proper channel every Wednesday between 11am and 1pm; your local time.

Waterproof And Submersible

You might think that most of marine radio are waterproof. That’s is not the case with a lot of cheaper radios, which are usually rated “splash resistant”.

There are two most commonly used rating system on the market - JIS and IP.

JIS scale (stands for Japan Industrial Standard) measures water resistance with rating ranging from 0 to 8.

  • JIS-0 - No special protection
  • JIS-8 - Equipment is usable for continuous submersion inn after under specified pressure

IP Code (International Protection Rating) - has two digits. The first digit refers to resistance to solid, while the second digit resistance to liquids.

  • IPX0 - No protection
  • IPX8 - Equipment is suitable for continuous immersion in water.
submersible marine two way radio

Standard Horizon HX870 - Floating Handheld VHF Radio with GPS receiver - read full review

The best two way marine radios will have IPX7/IPX8 and JIS8 /JIS8 submersible rating (1 meter depth of water for 30 minutes). We also recommend radio that can float and flash when dropped into the water.

Burp Function And Water Draining:

Some of you may have noticed degraded audio quality and sensitivity of a loudspeaker/microphone when repeatedly exposed to water or storms. This happens because the membrane of the speaker is not able to freely move and reproduce audio signals clearly. To deal with this problem manufacturers introduced a “burp function” (a term used by Standard Horizon)  or ”AquakeQuake” (trademark of ICOM radios) – a series of specially formulated sounds that will push water out of the speaker opening restoring clearer conversations and transmissions. Heavy rain can produce the same issue with speaker systems.

MOB:

MOB refers to the “man-over-board” function that will automatically mark a position if someone falls off the vessel. The location will be stored and can be shared with other people and/or search and rescue vessels. The term is used by Standard Horizon HX870 portable VHF radio as well as other higher end VHF radios.

AIS

AIS refers to an automatic tracking system that is used on vessels. The primary intent of AIS is to display traffic information in select area (limited to VHF radio range) and be seen by other vessels to avoid collisions. VHF radios that are equipped with integrated AIS transponder systems rely on built in GPS, VHF signal as well as digital processing to display location, vessel size as well as speed on a radar display. If you are planning on using your boat in high traffic areas, we strongly recommend to get a radio with AIS. 

Hailer

When a fixed mount VHF radio has a hailer function, it is capable of sending out preprogrammed fog signals and act as a 2 way PA style communication device. Power output ranges between 10W – 30W and you will need to have an external horn/hailer/pa speaker purchased and connected. 

Radios in PA Hail mode can send a signal as well as listen back (a PA acts like a microphone), providing another way of communication on a boat.

Hailer In FOG/HORN mode has several preprogrammed messages: STOP, SAIL, TOW, AGROUND, ANCHOR, SIREN, HORN and UNDERWAY. These are audio messages (5-11 seconds audio blasts with different intervals and repetitions) that are recognized by other vessels.

We recommend getting a VHF radio with a Hailer function as it can provide additional safety in bad weather and is great for larger boats.

Battery Life

This is an important factor for handheld VHFs. Make sure the radio has a large capacity battery to provide enough power during your trip. The capacity will range anywhere from 1,000mAh and all the way to 2300mAh. The Standard Horizon HX400 currently holds the record for including the largest capacity battery providing up to 17 hours of operational time. The Standard Horizon HX870 has 1800mAh battery that will last you 9-10 hours of typical usage plus you can swap it for a tray that takes 5xAAA alkaline batteries. Better VHF radios will have a quick charge function capable of fully charging the battery within 2-3 hours.

Manufacturer usually include DC charger as well as AC charger.

Active Noise Cancelling

Active Noise Cancelling filters the background noises and makes your communication with another person much clearer. Just like your cell phone on the street works to block out background noises, so does a VHF radio; actively trying to mute engine and wind noises that occur all the time. Look for a VHF radio with active noise cancelling to help ensure clear communication not matter the background noise.

NMEA – 0183 And 2000

NMEA is a serial-data networking protocol developed for marine electronic devices. It allows them to communicate and share information over a simple to connect network system. There are currently two NMEA versions that can be found in fixed mount radios – NMEA 0183 (older) and NMEA 2000 (newer). Using NMEA connectivity, marine electronic devices can share AIS reports, GNSS, DSC calls, radio frequency, and depth/fish finder information amongst themselves.

Display Types

Most marine radios use Dot -Matrix LCD display’s which provide enough contrast during sunny days. They show the most crucial information, like the current channel as well as selected power output. Radios with GPS and AIS typically will feature bigger display’s to accommodate more information (GPS location, maps, etc.)

The ICOM M605 is a newer fixed mount radio and features a 4.3” color LCD display with wide viewing angels. It is definitely a great looking screen with beautiful graphics that is a big upgrade over typical dot-matrix displays.

VHF Marine Radios Manufacturers

Today there are four manufacturers that dominate the VHF marine radio market:

  • ICOM
  • Standard Horizon (Yaesu brand)
  • Uniden
  • Cobra Electronics

Most of the radios are engineered in Japan, who is a leader in marine electronics today. Our favorite ones and most advanced radios are built by Icom and Standard Horizon, who offer a variety of handheld marine radios and fixed mounted marine radios.

VHF Marine Radio Price Range

Typically, you will see price ranges anywhere between $59 and $299, with some high-end models selling for over $500. What can you expect to get for $59? Lower transmit power, no DSC, no built in GPS, no AIS on fixed mount radios and shorter battery life on handheld radios. As something you may have to rely for for safety, we do not recommend those.

The top rated two way marine radios usually come from manufacturers such as Cobra, Icom and Standard Horizon, and include important features such as built in GPS, submersible, waterproof, 10 NOAA Weather channels, noise cancelling, illuminated keys, burp speaker draining, radio check and longer manufacturer warranty (3 years).

Icom M506 is currently on sale for $480 and has received NMEA Best VHF Radio Product award for the past 3 years (2014-2016). Recently released ICOM M605 features color LCD and can connect up to 3 external controllers. It also received NMEA award as the Best VHF product in 2017!

Warranty

This is not something to be overlooked. Since modern VHF radios are complicated electronic devices, failures do happen especially when used on a regular basis out on the water. With most marine radios, a 2-3 year waterproof warranty is included and should be the minimum warranty you look for. 


If you have bought or used these radios please feel free to leave a comment with your experience below to help others who may have questions.

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