Now that you have your dream boat, you need to have a marine VHF radio before going out on the water to help insure your safety should something bad happen. So, what is a VHF radio and why do you need one?
What is a Marine Radio?
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. Once your out even a couple miles offshore or less it might be the only way for you to communicate and send messages. Keep reading to find what we feel are the best VHF marine radios in 2018 and what features you need to look for.
Table of Content
Why VHF Radio And Not Just A Cell Phone?
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 tower placement. Another disadvantage of using a cell phone is that even if you do have cell reception, in case of an emergency you will be calling the Coast Guard via a regular phone.
A VHF marine radio has a dedicated channel (channel 16) to communicate with the coast guard and other boats in the area and it will send a distress signal with a push of a button (with your GPS location). What happens if you fall overboard? A typical cell phone does not float and many are not waterproof. Most good quality VHF radios are IPX7 and IPX8 rated (basically waterproof) and can float. Some higher end radios will also blink an 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 radio to make distress calls.
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 VHF radio is right for you.
Here is our pick of the 10 best VHF marine radios with rating and reviews; including handheld and fixed mount radios.
VHF Radio Name
Should You Get a Fixed Mount or a Handheld 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), the ability to place external antenna which adds even greater transmitting distance. The AIS, hailer and other features are typically limited to fixed mount radios as well.
FIXED MOUNT RADIOS, as you might expect, are mounted on a boat, require a continuous power source from a vessel as well as an external antenna.
They are capable of transmitting up to 25 watts, which is the legal limit of a VHF marine radio. The higher end models have AIS and Hailers which can be useful in heavy traffic areas.
Paired with a good antenna mounted high up, a fixed mount VHF radio can cover distance up to 25 miles away.
HANDHELD VHF RADIOS are great for smaller boats, kayaks and anyone who plans on being close to shore and doesn't require the extra power of the fixed mount radio. There is no need for an external antenna since it is built in and people love the portability of handheld radios.
The power is limited to about 6 watts which can provide approximately a 5 mile operating 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.
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 an MMSI number ($25 application fee), Maritime Mobile Service Identity. The unique ID is linked to a vessel, not a radio. You will also 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.
VHF Radios 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.
Best VHF Marine Radios Manufacturers:
Today there are four manufacturers that dominate the VHF marine radio market:
- Standard Horizon (Yaesu brand)
- Cobra Electronics
Most of the radios are built 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.
List of Best VHF Marine Radios
The Standard Horizon HX890 Marine Radio is one of the top rated two-way radios on the market. Its newly redesigned and rugged case conforms to Military Standards (MIL-STD-810F), making this marine radio an effective and easy to handle option.
With a large 1.7" x 1.7" dot matrix resolution screen & powerful backlight, the HX890 boasts one of the largest handheld VHF radio displays. It has an easy to operate icon/menu system that allows you to access DSC (Digital Selective Calling) calls, position tracking, and navigation all from the menu.
The built-in integrated 66 channel WAAS GPS receiver allows for quick and accurate position information, using the DSC & waypoint navigation features. It also has Group Monitoring (GM) for continuous vessel tracking & positioning for up to 9 pre-selected vessels.
This unit includes a two scrambler system, utilizing both 4 code CVS2500A and 32 code FVP-42 scramblers, ensuring secure communications when out on the water.
Thanks to a water activated emergency strobe light, you’ll feel safer too. It activates automatically if the unit falls into the water, even if it isn’t turned on. The light can change between on & off flash, SOS, or a continuous beam.
Features & Accessories
The Icom M36 01 Handheld Marine Radio is a high powered floating handheld radio known for its unique audio system comprised of Clear Voice & Voice Boost technologies. The system automatically adjusts incoming & outgoing audio levels to compensate for any ambient noise, ensuring your radio communications are sent and received as clearly as possible.
The IC-M36 has large & easy to operate buttons, allowing you to adjust the sound levels as needed. When needed, the “LOUD” button can be quickly pushed, and the unit receives an instant increase in audio output.
It’s also equipped with automatic volume adjustment; If you’re in an engine room or high noise environment, the sub-microphone will detect the ambient noise. The IC-M36 then automatically increases the volume output to suit the surrounding environment.
The unit’s pinch-waisted slender design is lightweight & easy to carry and conforms to IPX7 waterproofing standards. The transceiver is designed to float if dropped into water, rated at 1 meter (3.3ft) for up to 30 minutes, even when all of the supplied accessories are attached.
The IC-M36 is very simple and isn’t equipped with GPS, VHF, or DSC (Digital Selective Calling) programming. If these are required for your boating needs, additional equipment will need to be purchased. It does have limited accessibility to weather channel & weather alerts, which will help you gauge and navigate changing weather conditions.
Features & Accessories
The Cobra MRHH600W Marine Radio is the first handheld radio in the Cobra family. It’s equipped with GPS & DSC (Digital Selective Calling). This enables it to display your GPS coordinates and automatically transmit them via DSC to the Coast Guard. A handy tool in case of emergency!
The MRHH600W navigation system features a digital compass, waypoint navigation, plus course & speed readings. It’s also equipped with 3 channel maps established for USA, Canadian, & international channels. You get access to all NOAA weather channels for water and weather alerts.
This unit has a Rewind-Say-Again® feature which lets you replay, store, & record the last 20 seconds of incoming audio transmissions. This can assist authorities in locating a distressed vessel.
The MRHH600W also has a unique BURP feature that expels water from the speaker grill should the unit be dropped in the water or be subjected to extreme rain & weather. And with the built-in Bluetoothwireless technology, you can make and receive phone calls while keeping your cell phone safe & dry.
As with other marine radios, the MRHH600W has a floating feature with a transmitting light which can alternate between:
- Emergency strobe
- SOS signals
It’s activated when dropped in the water, so it can be easily spotted. The MRHH600W comes packed with multiple features including:
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:
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:
If you are looking for a fully featured fixed mount VHF radio - look no further! The GX2000 has all the high-end features including AIS and GPS functionality and a huge easy to read display.
The Standard Horizon GX2000 is packed with high-end features: integrated AIS and GPS receiver capabilities, and full AIS/GPS matrix display. Note that you do need to already have an AIS/GPS receiver or transponder on your boat. 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 pre-programmed. 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 GX2000 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 connectivity that are typically found on other more expensive models. The rugged construction and 3 year waterproof 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 GX2000 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:
The Standard Horizon Explorer GX1700 Marine Radio is another top ranked marine radio from the Standard Horizon product line. Sporting a large 3” LCD display, the GX1700 includes customizable channel names as well as preset keys that stores up to 10 channels. The unit is composed of an ultra thin, compact case which allows for flexibility in your mounting options.
With an integrated 12 Channel WAAS GPS receiver built into the panel, you can easily access the following:
- DSC (Digital Selective Calling) calling
- Distress calls
- Position sharing
- Waypoint navigation
- Polling GPS positions of up to 4 ships
This happens without needing to wire the radio to a separate GPS, making it worth your money and easy to use.
The GX1700 unit is designed so you can enter & save up to 100 waypoints, using the navigation compass display. This unique display also allows you to track your vessel’s LAT/LON, SOG, COG, BRG, & DST to the waypoint.
This model has 10 pre-programmed NOAA and Canadian weather channels, which are easily accessed with the dedicated WX key. The GX1700 can be set to monitor WX channels, providing audible alerts to keep you informed of pending storm advisories.
Features & Accessories
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-M424G 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 the 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-M424G is the radio for you. Some of the features include:
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 reasons this gets our pick for the best budget fixed mount vhf radio. Some of the features include:
The Cobra MRF45D Marine Radio is a class D DSC (Digital Selective Calling) capable VHF radio that’s compliant with the latest FCC specifications. With a bright display and illuminated buttons, you can easily send & receive signals. As a bonus you can exchange positional information with other boats or stations, utilizing two built-in receivers.
The DSC system allows you to initiate & receive distress calls with GPS position coordinates. If necessary you can transmit urgent, safety, routine, position request & location, and group calls between other DSC equipped vessels. The MRF45D does require an additional GPS receiver to be connected to the radio in order to facilitate DSC/GPS communications.
With selectable 1W or 25W output options, the MRF45D is designed for both short and long-range communication. This unit comes with a standard Dual Watch which lets you monitor two channels at once - channel 16 and one additional user selectable channel. This allows you to scan through all channels in the active channel map to find conversations in progress.
The radio is also equipped with 3 channel maps, which provide you with easy and reliable navigation in USA, Canadian, & international waters.
The MRF45D is pre-programmed to access all of the NOAA weather channels, which are accessible 24 hours a day. The system will also advise you of any incoming hazards or changing weather with an audible tone & visual alarm.
Features & Accessories
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 on the water.
How far can a marine radio transmit?
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 the antenna. VHF marine radios use radio frequency ranges 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 the usable range of your marine radio.
In ideal conditions, you should expect a 4-6 mile range from a handheld VHF radio and around 16-20 miles from a fixed mount radio with a 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. View more information about VHF marine antennas.
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 3rd channel, 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.
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, especially before a long trip, by tuning 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” very different from waterproof!
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.
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 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 refers to an automatic tracking system that is used on vessels. The primary intent of AIS is to display traffic information in a 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, and VHF signals 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.
When a fixed mount VHF radio has a hailer function, it is capable of sending out pre-programmed fog signals and act as a 2 way PA style communication device. Speaker 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 and longer trips offshore.
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 2,300mAh. The Standard Horizon HX400 currently holds the record including the largest capacity battery providing up to 17 hours of operational time. The Standard Horizon HX870 has a 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's usually include a DC charger as well as AC charger.
Active Noise Cancelling:
Active Noise Cancelling filters out the background noises and makes your communication with another person much clearer. Just like your cell phone 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.
Most marine radios use Dot -Matrix LCD display’s which provide enough contrast during sunny days and are back-lit for visibility at night. 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 such as 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 Radio Price Range:
Typically, you will see price ranges anywhere between $59 to $299, with some high-end models selling for over $500. What can you expect to get for $59? Lower transmitting power, no DSC, no built in GPS, no AIS on fixed mount radios and shorter battery life. As something you may have to rely on 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 warranties of 3 years or longer.
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!
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.