Choosing the best marine radio for your situation depends largely on how you intend to use your boat, how much you are able and willing to pay for this important piece of marine electronics, and whether or not you will permanently install the radio.
The marine VHF radio is the primary means of communication for the recreational boat owner. Many marine safety experts say it should be the first piece of marine electronics you buy when outfitting your boat.
A marine VHF radio can issue an immediate broadcast of both voice and digital information that can be heard by emergency agencies such as the Coast Guard and other mariners in your area. Other top uses include communicating with fellow boaters and monitoring weather channels.
Marine VHF radios have improved tremendously in recent years with the introduction of Digital Selective Calling. In an emergency were to develop aboard your boat, pressing the distress button on your marine radio will send an automated digital distress signal with your vessel position and your identity to other vessels and rescue agencies within VHF range.
To take full advantage of DSC you will need to make sure the radio is linked to a GPS receiver. There are many other advantages that DSC offers, including the ability to send a digital call directly to another DSC-equipped vessel or shore station.
The marine market is loaded with VHF radios so choosing the best marine radio for you can be a daunting task. There are two main types: fixed-mount and handheld. The fixed-mount versions range from about $100 to $500 with handhelds priced from $50 to about $300. Any boat that goes offshore should be equipped with a fixed-mount VHF. A fixed-mount marine radio range is about 25 miles depending on antenna height, while a handheld will likely be restricted to about a five mile range.
Best Marine Radio—Fixed Mount Radio Advantages
On the fixed-mount models, you will find rotary knobs or pushbutton up/down arrow keys for selecting channels. The rotary knobs usually allow the user to scroll through the channels faster and easier than up and down pushbuttons. On many marine VHF radios the channel knob will also make menu selections, again it is much easier and faster to use the rotary knob for here too.
If you own a large boat with a cabin, upper helm, fly bridge, or tower station you may want to consider adding a remote VHF station. They cost from $100 to $150. At minimum, a remote microphone connected to your main fixed mount marine VHF will usually have an LCD screen, a quick- access channel 16 button, and volume and squelch controls. You will very likely also now have intercom capability for two-way communication between the main radio and any remote units. Not all marine radio are capable of using a remote so check this out before you purchase.
Investigate the size of the display screen on the radio and make sure it will be big enough for the location you have in mind for mounting. Also consider the size of the displayed channel numbers and make sure you are able to see them from several feet away or when the boat is in a chop and is getting tossed about. You should also take into consideration the pushbutton and screen backlighting if you plan to operate at night.
Since 16 is a VHF radio’s most important channel; many radios have quick-access buttons on the face and on the microphone to select this channel. That is a useful feature.
Here is another consideration when you are trying to find the best marine radio for your boat. Make sure the internal speaker is loud enough for you to hear at sea, with the noise from the wind, waves and engine. Many marine VHF radios have rather meager speakers so make sure the radio has an external jack to add an external speaker. This is almost a must on any boat without an enclosed helm area.
You’ll have to decide whether to flush-mount or bracket-mount your radio, this will depend on the design of the helm. Flush mounting the radio is more secure while using the bracket will allow you to easily remove the radio from the boat when not in use.
A hailer is another option to consider. Having this option will give you the capability to broadcast over external speaker system to other boaters or to land. This type of system is most useful on a larger vessel where communicating by voice alone may be difficult or impossible. Remember to use this feature you will need to install a hailer horn on your boat and connect it to your marine VHF radio.
Best Marine Radio—Handheld Marine VHF Advantage
But the handheld is useful, no doubt, especially as an inshore radio and as a backup. Case in point: Your electrical system fails while you are underway. No problem. You’ve got your handheld, which is not only portable but also powered by its own internal batteries. Redundancy is good thing, especially on a boat.
Make sure your handheld radio meets one of the tough waterproofing standards like IPX6, IPX7, JIS7, or JIS8. The latter means the radio will be submersible to a depth of 1.5 meters for a duration of 30 minutes without suffering any ill effects. Some handhelds also have the ability to float, this can be a real boon when the radio is used on a small boat where dropping it in the water is a real possibility.