You don’t need to spend a bundle of cash to get a first-class handheld VHF radio.
A handheld VHF radio is a useful tool for a variety of tasks aboard any boat, be it big or small.
On a kayak or skiff, these types of VHF radios serve well as the primary method of communicating. Plus, you don’t have to worry about running wires, or mounting the radio and antenna.
It can also play a role as a means of two-way communication if the dinghy is launched or a member of your party is ashore nearby.
A $100 Might Be All It Takes.
What we found from our comparison is that dropping down a notch in price from a more expensive handheld VHF marine radio doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing quality or performance of the functions and features our testers believe are most important.
In our review, most of the less expensive radios performed as well as those units priced significantly higher.
So what do you lose by opting for a less expensive radio? Bells and whistles.
If DSC calling, scramblers, or the ability to make and receive transmissions on aircraft, AM/FM, or family radio bands are the special features you are looking for, then the lower priced radios we’ve tested won’t likely meet your needs.
However, if all you want is a high quality portable VHF radio to serve as an emergency backup to your fixed-mount radio, making short-range calls from your cockpit or dinghy, then a number of the less expensive portable VHF radios will serve you just fine.
As you’ll see in our reviews, the quality of the transmitters and receivers varies somewhat, as does the all-important battery life.
Here’s another value added feature when you use a handheld as a backup to a fixed-mount.
Some handheld radios will allow you to connect to the boat’s main antenna using an adapter and significantly increase your portable vhf radio transceiver range.
Just make sure you plan ahead and have the appropriate hardware aboard.
How We Test Handheld VHF Radio
First off, the batteries of each handheld marine VHF radio we test are fully charged using their associated AC charger.
Then we run each radio through a series of bench tests using a communications service monitor. Our tester records results for transmitter power output, frequency accuracy and stability, and receiver sensitivity.
Normally the maximum power output of any handheld marine VHF radio is limited to 5 watts, though some handhelds now boast output of 6 watts. A low-power setting of 1-watt for harbor use is also available on all radios. In addition to the high- and low-power settings, a few of the radios had a mid-power setting. We test only at maximum power and at the 1-watt setting. We take transmitter power measurements directly off the radio antenna port.
A transmitter test is done on each radio on channel 16. First at room temperature (75 degrees F) and then at temperature extremes near the minimum and maximum temperature capability of each radio.
We also check each handheld marine VHF radio low-power setting, measuring both power output and frequency accuracy. Transmitter power output and frequency stability was rated over the entire range of transmitter testing; the closer a unit holds to the appropriate frequency and the more consistent its power output, the higher it was rated.
To reach the cold extreme, radios are placed in a freezer at 15 degrees F for four hours prior to testing. We used an small environmental chamber to get the radios to the high-temperature extreme. Radios are left to cook for two hours at 122 degrees F and then immediately run through another series of transmitter-power and frequency tests.
Receiver sensitivity is the ability of the receiver section to hear a weak signal. Typical handheld VHF receiver sensitivity ratings run from .22 to .35 microvolts, with industry groups recommending a minimum of .50 microvolts. All the radios we’ve tested did a good job here, meaning they are more than sensitive enough to pick up weak incoming signals.
Another receiver standard is selectivity; it is the ability of the receiver to reproduce only the signals you want to hear and not others, even though they may be strong and nearby. Our test equipment did not allow us to test each radio for this characteristic. Each manufacturer provided selectivity information, a higher number is better.
Audio System Testing
An important part of any handheld marine VHF radio often overlooked is the audio amplifier and speaker. Boats can be noisy places, and if you cant hear the output, it doesnt really matter how well the transmitter or receiver work. To rate the audio system of each radio, we measured the sound pressure at maximum volume while generating a 1 KHz tone with our communications service monitor and inputting the tone into the radio. Measurements were taken in dBA at a distance of 1-foot using a handheld decibel meter. Our tester also listened to each radio by monitoring a weather channel and rating the quality of sound reproduction.
Display screens were rated for the size of the channel number displayed, the amount of other information shown, the value of the channel comments, the size of the screen, and the quality of the backlighting.
Odds and Ends
A submersion test was conducted on each radio to confirm it as waterproof. The tester turned on the radios and submerged them in a bucket of fresh water for 30 minutes. After removal, he checked the radio for proper operation immediately and then again the next day. All passed.
Since these radios are frequently taken on and off the boat, we elected to perform a drop test to confirm radio durability. Each radio was turned on, and then dropped from a height of 4 feet onto concrete. Again all passed.
The clock started ticking for the battery-life test immediately following charging. We allotted the first hour of battery use to run our bench tests. Radios were off during their time in the environmental chambers and then turned back on a couple of days later and allowed to run continuously for the next 14 hours. We accomplished full power transmissions for about three minutes every hour and voice reception for about five minutes every hour until the battery died or the unit began to malfunction. Total battery test time was 15 hours. Radios still fully functional at that time were rated at 15+ hours of battery life.
In the final analysis of each handheld marine VHF radio, we considered performance, cost (initial and battery replacement), warranty (both unit and battery), battery life, included equipment, recharge time, display, and audio output.
Best Handheld VHF Radio
The Icom M92 is a floating marine handheld VHF radio and GPS navigator combo. Its full designator is the IC-M92D. This VHF/GPS combo features a built-in high-sensitivity 48-channel GPS receiver that includes navigation capabilities with a man overboard function.
Other standard features include a high capacity lithium battery pack, large dot matrix display screen, built-in DSC functionality, and a powerful audio system.
Icom Exclusive Features
It also has a couple Icom exclusive features, including provision for a visual alarm should the unit go in the water as well as AquaQuake to rid the speaker of water quickly following a submersion.
The Icom M92 handheld marine VHF radio package ships with the radio, rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, charger tray, AC charger power cord, belt clip, DC charger power cord, wrist strap, screws to permanently mount the cradle, and an instruction manual.
A long list of optional equipment is available for the M92 including a variety of rapid chargers and a water proof speaker microphone.
The radio body stands just under 6-inches tall, is about 2.6-inches wide and 1.6-inches deep not counting the removable belt clip attachment. Overall height including the removable antenna is right at 12-inches.
On my scale, with the 1500 mAH lithium-ion battery pack installed, the IC-M92D weighed in at 10.7 ounces. That weight places this radio on the light end of the weight spectrum when compared to other GPS equipped marine handheld radios.
The drop-in charger cradle will hold the radio with the battery installed or charge the battery alone. A complete charge cycle with the supplied AC charger system can take as long as 13 hours depending on the battery state of charge when the unit is place in the cradle. No charge time is stated in the manual when using the DC charger cord and I did not test this feature. This charger displays a yellow-orange light to indicate charge in progress and green light to indicate a fully charged battery.
All controls on this radio are pushbutton, with 14 buttons on the front panel, 1 on back, and 1 on the left side. The left side holds the push-to-talk switch with the case back holding the DSC emergency calling button under a spring loaded red cover. The front panel has up/down, left/right arrow keys, four soft keys, volume/squelch, menu, clear, enter, and power buttons.
The antenna on this unit is removable and with proper coupling could be connected to your vessel’s main antenna on a to provide backup VHF capabilities with increased range over use with the standard small whip antenna.
One button soft key operation is available for a number of functions including the selection of transmitter output power, switch to weather channels, entering channel name menu, selecting screen backlight slider, choosing a favorite channel, using AquaQuake, using the MOB function, going to the waypoint list, and selecting the compass page as well as several others. Addition functionality is available by accessing the main menu.
Scan modes include weather alert watch, DSC watch, dual watch, and triple or tri-watch. In the tri-watch mode channels 16 and 9 will be scanned with the third being user selected. Dual watch monitors 16 and a working channel. You can also scan your favorite channels using priority or normal mode. Priority marches through channels sequentially while also monitoring channel 16; normal mode scans strictly in numerical order. A channel can be added or removed as a favorite with a single soft key button press.
The Icom M92 can use all Canadian, International, and US marine VHF channels, and NOAA weather channels.
GPS, DSC, and Other Special Features
The Icom M92 incorporates a built-in GPS receiver and digital selective calling capabilities. To initiate the use of DSC functions you must register for, obtain, and then enter an MMSI number.
GPS functionality is straightforward. The M92 can store a single MOB waypoint and navigate to the position just a couple button presses, a very nice feature in my opinion. Up to 50 waypoints can be stored. Present position waypoints are stored for use with a single button press. Waypoints can also be entered manually by entering the latitude and longitude with onscreen menus. Each point can be assigned an alphanumeric name up to 10 characters long.
You can navigate to a saved waypoint by selecting it off the waypoint list and choosing to navigate to it. Once done, a screen showing range, bearing, course over ground, speed over ground, and a compass graphic appears. An alternate navigation screen dispenses with the compass rose and instead shows present position. Other GPS screens include a compass page and a pair of satellite status pages.
After you have programmed an MMSI number into the Icom IC-M92D it will be capable of making a DSC distress call simply by lifting the red distress cover and pressing the distress pushbutton located on the case back. The radio can also make an individual, all ships, group, and test calls. Position request and report calls capability exist as well. You can attach a nature of distress message to a distress call. Up to 100 DSC addresses can be stored in memory with up to 10 characters in the name.
When the battery icon drops to one third charge showing the M92 will be restricted to low power only for transmitting. You should also note, the lower power screen icon will flash and you will not be able to select high power.
AquaQuake is an Icom exclusive. It generate a loud low pitch tone, when selected on with a single soft key press, to quickly clear any remaining water droplets out of the speaker should the unit get dropped in the water or be used in heavy rain.
I tested the Icom M92 using the supplied 7.4-volt 1500 mAh lithium-ion battery pack. The standard BP-275 battery pack is the only acceptable power source for Icom M92 radio. As such, it would be wise to carry a second battery pack aboard when conditions warrant.
Icom claims the audio system of the IC-M92D uses a large speaker and has high power output. I found that to be the case with a measured output of 94 dBA while monitoring a weather channel broadcast. The audio was clear and understandable even at these volume settings and I rated the audio performance excellent.
The Icom M92 features a full dot matrix display screen that measures just 1.7-inches on the diagonal. This equates to a screen with a height of approximately three quarters of an inch and a width of 1.5-inches. A bit smallish, but still this screen displays tons of information with a clean, crisp view because of its high 64 by 132 pixel count.
In the VHF mode, channel group, transmitter power setting, and a GPS status icon are displayed in the top line of the display. The bottom row holds labels use white on black reverse type for each of the four soft keys. The left/right arrow buttons scroll the numerous functions as needed. The right third of the screen show the selected channel number, channel comment, and alpha status.
The selected transmitter power output level is shown onscreen with the Hi icon indicating 5-watts and LOW for 1-watt or output power. A small battery level indicator is located on the upper left portion of the screen with filled battery shaped icon when full. As the battery charge level drops the battery icon empties in thirds. Present position and date/time are all visible on screen at all times in this mode.
This radio is waterproof and carries a IPX7 rating. This means it can be submerged to a depth of 1 meter for 30 minutes without sustaining any damage. It passed both the drop and submersion tests with no glitches. When the radio detects water it displays a message and the screen and button backlight flashes as a warning.
The Icom M92 marine handheld VHF radio carries a full 3-year warranty.
Battery Life Testing
The Icom M92 marine handheld VHF/GPS combo managed to last for 9 hours in our battery life test while maintaining the ability to transmit a full power. In the tenth hour and beyond the radio was restricted to low power output due because of protective circuitry that limits transmit power once the battery indicates only one-third charge remaining. The M92 continued to be fully functional, with low power transmit only, for two more hours.
To test the unit I transmitted at full power for 3 minutes every hour and listened to a weather channel broadcast at a moderate volume level for 5 minutes every hour. This is generally considered the industry standard hourly duty cycle for handheld VHF radios.
The Icom M92 floats, has an internal GPS, can navigate, and make a DSC emergency call with both position and nature of distress. Lots of functionality as well as the Icom name should make this radio a best seller for boaters. I am rating it a buy.
The Icom M424 marine VHF radio is the latest fixed mount entry from this well-known marine electronics maker to hit the market. This boat radio features basic VHF functionality as well Class D DSC capabilities, noise cancelling circuitry, and introduces a new Icom user interface.
The M424 ships with the radio and attached microphone, a plastic tilt bracket suitable for both overhead and dashboard mounting, a fused power cable, metal microphone holder, and an instruction manual.
To flush mount this radio you’d have to improvise your own mounting system or purchase the Icom MB-132 flush mounting kit.
Leads extending from the back panel of this Icom marine VHF radio let you connect to an external speaker, PA speaker, and other NMEA0183 compatible devices.
The radio face measures 7-inches wide by 3.3-inches high. The radio housing extends less than 4.5-inches from the front panel back, which is where the radio would contact the panel in a flush mount setup. A flush mount step approximately a quarter inch wide runs around the face back.
Controls and Operation
This radio, officially known as the Icom IC-M424, has one knob located on the bottom right of the front panel as well as 13 pushbuttons. The single knob turns the radio on/off and controls volume and squelch settings. Channel selection is made with up/down arrow keys located both on the radio front panel and the microphone.
Two dedicated pushbuttons offer single press control for quick selection of channel 16 or a predetermined call channel and sending of a DSC distress call. You will also find four soft keys, and a menu, clear, and enter key.
Oft used controls are selected with one of the four soft keys. Arrow keys let you scroll the functions as needed. Any of up to 14 functions can be accessed via a soft key. These include setting transmit power level, switching to weather channels, several scan functions, setting the receiver to local or distant, as well as others. Full access to DSC calling options, DSC settings, other radio settings, and certain configuration items are found in the main menu.
The M424 will interface with a variety of gear using a NMEA0183 interface including a GPS and the Icom MA-500TR Class B AIS unit. When connected to this AIS the M424 is able to call an AIS target without the need to manually enter the MMSI number. When connected to a GPS the radio will display present position, date, and time.
Icom M424—Added Features
This radio will connect to and power an external speaker and connect to a PA speaker. With the appropriate PA speaker connected you will have full hailer capabilities including listen back on the radio internal speaker and a manual foghorn mode.
The M424 has an Icom exclusive called AquaQuake which uses a low tone burst though the radio speaker to clear any accumulated water. Water in the speaker could muffle the output and reduce voice clarity of incoming radio calls.
The M424 has a built-in low voltage alarm that displays a battery icon onscreen if input voltage drops below approximately 11 volts. Raising the voltage above about 11.5 volts resets the alarm to off. There is no audible warning associated with this alarm. The M424 continued to function with input voltages as low as 9.5 volts. In a situation where vessel electrical power is waning this could give you a shot at making or receiving voice communication when all other gear has failed.
The M424 is rated waterproof to IPX7 standards which means the radio could be submerged to a depth of one meter for 30 minutes without sustaining damage.
Icom marine VHF radios are well-known for their efficient transmitters. The new Icom M424 does not have the most efficient transmitter I have tested but it was still does well by drawing 4.4 amps while transmitting at full power and .9 amps at its low power setting.
I am giving the receiver sensitivity and channel separation good ratings based on the factory specifications listed in the instruction manual. Audio output was a respectable 91 dBA with volume at maximum while listening to a weather broadcast. While listening at these high volume settings voice distortion of the broadcast was minimal. Overall I am giving the Icom M424 audio system a good rating.
This Icom VHF boat radio has a massive 3-inch monochrome full-dot matrix display screen. Channel numbers display at nearly an inch in height on the right side of the screen with channel name below. Channel names can be changed if desired. The left two-thirds of the screen space is designated for position and time display when the radio is connected to a GPS.
Top row labels indicate when the radio is transmitting or receiving, transmitter power setting, channel group, and GPS status as well as several other tidbits of information. The bottom row display soft key labels that can be scrolled with the left/right arrow keys. Backlight settings are made by selecting BKLT from the soft key menu and then adjusting a slider as desired.
The Icom M424 can be set to scan for weather alerts, and scan in priority or normal modes. Priority scan always check channel 16 between other channels while normal follows a sequential order. As the names imply, Dual Watch or Tri-Watch scan modes monitor two and three channels respectively. Channel 16 is always one of the monitored channels in these modes. With the new Icom VHF radio interface you will find favorite channels can be added or removed from the scan list with a single press of the star icon labeled soft key.
Digital Selective Calling
The Icom M424 is rated as a Class D radio, which means it has two built-in receivers, one for voice communications and one for digital communications. Channel 70 is the designated channel for digital calling and is continuously monitored for any incoming DSC calls.
Before you can use any DSC functions you must enter your MMSI number. Penalties for improper DSC use have increased significantly so make sure you enter your MMSI number promptly upon receipt.
With your MMSI number properly entered the M424, when connected to a GPS, will allow you to make a variety of DSC calls, including a distress call, which transmits your vessel information and position data. The M424 will store up to 100 MMSI numbers with up to 10 character name associated with each.
The Icom M424 is a mid-priced marine VHF radio with all the basic features you would expect. Highlights include a huge crisp display screen and hailer capabilities. This marine VHF radio should be another hit from marine electronics maker Icom.
Standard Horizon HX400
The Standard Horizon HX400 is a fully submersible commercial grade marine VHF handheld radio with a built-in voice scrambler and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) band capabilities.
The HX400 package includes the radio, AC charger, DC charger cable, drop-in charge cradle, FNB-115LI battery pack housing an 2400 mAH lithium-ion battery, belt clip, removable antenna, hand strap, and owner’s manual.
The drop-in charger cradle will hold the radio or the battery alone and fully charge a depleted battery pack in 3 hours using either the AC adapter or DC power cord. The charger displays a red light to indicate charging and green for a fully charged battery.
Other Standard Horizon HX400 features include a noise canceling microphone, programmable channel names, low battery indicator, and the ability to use 40 programmable LMR channels.
The HX400 is constructed on a die-cast metal chassis protected by a polycarbonate outer shell. With the battery pack in place the unit measures 2.3-inches wide, 5.2-inches tall, and 1.6-inches deep. Overall height with the antenna in place is 11.2-inches. Sans belt clip the HX400 weighs in at 11.9 ounces.
Standard Horizon HX400 functionality is controlled using eight front panel pushbuttons and a rotary volume/on/off knob located on top of the case. You will also find an optional microphone/headset jack on top between the antenna and volume control. The push-to-talk switch is side-mounted.
One button control is available for transmitter power selection of 1- or 5-watts, up or down channel changing, weather channel selection, a preset channel change, quick selection of channel 16 or 9, and some scanning options. Switching between channel groups is accomplished by holding the 16/9 and pressing the CLR key to change group.
Squelch is set by pressing the SQL key and then adjusting as desired using the up/down arrows. Numbers displayed onscreen tell you where the squelch is set, it can be set to one of ten levels. Pressing and holding the SQL key lets you go to zero squelch which might allow you to hear a weak incoming voice signal. When you release the button the radio returns to the previous squelch setting.
This Standard Horizon handheld will allow the user to select up to 10 channel presets. You can arrange them in order as desired, and then select them for use with the PRESET key and the up/down arrows.
A built-in voice scrambler will let you have a private conversation on an open VHF channel with another party as long as they are also equipped with a voice scrambler. This radio is compatible with other Standard Horizon handheld and fixed mount VHF radio voice scramblers.
A set menu gives the user control of beep sound level, various screen backlight control including the brightness, several scan settings, weather alert, custom channel names, scrambler, and the noise cancel setting of the microphone.
Scan modes include Dual watch, Tri-watch, programmable, or priority. Going into the set menu allows you to choose memory or priority. You can set the HX400 to scan from two up to and including and all channels. In memory mode it scans in numerical order and in priority is scans between the priority channel and each set channel. The HX400 can use all US, Canadian, and International channels as well as receive 10 NOAA weather channels and weather alerts.
The HX400 features a keypad lock to prevent inadvertent channel changing or unintended changes to other settings. With the lock enabled all buttons except the PTT, SQL, and the lock key are disabled.
A transmitter timer limits the time of a single continuous transmission to 5 minutes. You will hear an audible warning a few seconds before the transmitter times out. Once this happens the radio automatically disable the PTT key for 10 seconds.
This Standard Horizon marine radio can also be programmed to transmit and receive voice communications on up to 40 LMR channels. To use this capability requires dealer setup.
This radio is waterproof and carries an IPX8 rating meaning it can be submerged to a depth of 1.5 meters for 30 minutes without sustaining any damage. It carries a 3-year warranty on the radio with a 12-month warranty on the battery.
Performance and Battery Life Testing
For my review I used the supplied lithium-ion battery pack to power the radio. An optional alkaline battery tray, model FBA-42, holds 6 AA batteries and can be used as an alternative power source.
With a measured 92 dBA during our audio output test I rated the overall audio performance good.
The Standard Horizon HX400 display screen has a diagonal measurement of 1.7-inches making it is fairly large for a marine handheld VHF radio. It uses segmented numbers, icons, and a 6-character message line to provide information to the user. The channel number is shown in fairly numbers with alpha shown alongside when appropriate.
Onscreen icons indicate transmitter power output, busy, channel preset, key lock, voice scrambler, priority channel, and channel group. Battery level is on the lower left and shows a filled battery shaped icon when full. As the battery charge drops the battery icon empties too.
It passed both the drop and submersion tests too with no glitches. We ran the battery life test on the HX400 for 16 hours and the battery level indicator was still showing a full charge. This radio has outstanding battery life even under our tough test conditions.
The Standard Horizon HX400 demonstrated good overall performance during our review. If you need a top notch radio with a built-in voice scrambler this radio is for you. However, you should keep in mind this radio does not float.