Unprecedented technological leaps have made recreational boating safer than ever. For example, all mariners now have access to GPS-enabled devices, which was unavailable to consumers until just a few decades ago. In addition, AIS has become so affordable that all vessels are legally required to have it. Despite all these new communication tools, accidents still continue to happen on a regular basis. Maritime emergencies are sometimes so serious that they result in fatalities. According to the US Coast Guard’s recreational boating report, 613 people died from these types of accidents in 2019.
Unexpected weather changes and other unforeseen events will always happen while on the water, but a good VHF radio will allow you to avoid the chance of accidents and get help quickly when they do occur. All five of the fixed mount VHF radios listed below are waterproof, affordable and come equipped with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) features. Keep reading to learn how they compare.
The most affordable VHF radio with IPX8 waterproofing
Standard Horizon GX1400GB
The Standard Horizon GX1400GB is a reasonably priced and easy to use VHF radio that is designed to hold up against inclement weather. If you already have an AIS for your vessel, it makes a lot of sense. The fact that you can track nearby vessels through the use of DSC polling is handy because it can serve as a confirmation of information provided by your AIS device.
- IPX8 waterproof rating. This reasonably priced VHF radio is water resistant enough to withstand 4.92 feet of water immersion for 30 minutes.
- Keeps track of six positions at once. Nearby ships can be polled automatically with DSC so you can monitor their positions at all times.
- Local ships appear on the GPS plotter. You can visualize exactly where local ships are so that you can make smart and safe navigational decisions.
- Noise cancellation. Standard Horizon’s Clear Voice noise filtration filter blocks out unwanted sounds.
- Controls designed with ease of use in mind. The “E2O” (Easy to Operate) interface is focused around simplicity and ease of use.
- Automatically saves DSC calls. The DSC logger function holds up to 30 transmitted calls, 30 distress calls and 50 other calls.
- Multiple mounting options. There are two different mounting configurations: desktop and overhead. A flush mounting kit (sold separately) is also available.
- No built-in AIS. You’ll need to purchase a separate AIS unit to be in compliance with navigational laws.
- No support for NMEA 2000. The GX1400GB can only communicate with devices that support the older NMEA 0183 standard.
In a nutshell
Two words summarize the most unique aspect of the Standard Horizon GX1400GB’s feature lineup: toughness and affordability. It’s a fully waterproof VHF radio that can withstand full water submersion. IPX8 waterproofing seems to be an unusual feature at this affordable price point. On the other hand, the lack of built-in AIS and NMEA 2000 compatibility could be a liability.
The best VHF radio for emergency calling
All VHF radios have emergency features, but the Icom M330G 31 has a few extras in this area that may come in handy. For example, you can send and receive distress calls not only over channel 13 but also via DSC. In addition, you can use NOAA weather alert broadcasts to steer clear of inclement weather.
- Automatically monitors for emergencies. The Dual-watch and Tri-watch features let you keep abreast of emergency calls as they are transmitted on channel 13.
- Send and receive distress alerts via DSC. Not all DSC-capable VHF radios support DSC distress transmissions, but this one does.
- NOAA weather alerts. This feature lets you stay up-to-date with official weather broadcasts.
- Intuitive interface. The M330G’s promotional literature emphasizes the user friendliness of its menus.
- Multiple mounting options. If you don’t want to use the standard mounting bracket kit that comes in the box you can buy the flush mount kit, which lets you install the M330G in an instrument panel.
- IPX7 waterproof rating. The M330G is built to withstand not only water splashes, but also one meter of water immersion.
- AquaQuake. This unique feature from Icom uses low frequency sound waves to push water away.
- No built-in AIS. All ships are required to operate an Automatic Identification System. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to buy additional equipment.
- No support for NMEA 2000. The M330G doesn’t work with devices that support the NMEA’s new plug-and-play standard.
In a nutshell
Almost all modern fixed mount VHF radios now support digital calling. However, some DSC-enabled VHF radios have more capabilities than others. The Icom M330G is equipped with all the standard DSC functions, plus it can send and receive DSC distress alerts. This key functionality is missing in some of the M330G’s competitors.
The best low-cost fixed mount VHF radio
The Uniden UM385BK isn’t the fanciest DSC VHF radio on the market, but it might be all you need for casual maritime activities like fishing or pleasure cruising. The fact that Uniden gives you the option to purchase one of two different antenna kits adds extra convenience. The two color choices provide some stylistic flexibility, as well. On the other hand, the UM385BK’s minimalistic DSC features and lack of support for NMEA 2000 may be a turn off for some.
- Reasonably priced. The UM385BK’s inexpensive price tag is one of its major selling points.
- Two different color options. Black and white are the two color choices.
- Optional antenna kit. You can either purchase the standalone version or choose between two different antenna kits.
- IPX4 / JIS4 waterproof rating. It’s water resistant enough to withstand water splashes from any direction.
- Automatic scanning. You can use Triple Watch to scan emergency channels, or set up custom channel scan routines.
- Multiple mounting options. The desktop mounting kit is included in the box, but you can also purchase the flush mount kit instead if you want to install the UM385BK in an instrument panel.
- Minimal DSC features. While the UM385BK does support DSC, it lacks a DSC distress call feature.
- No built-in AIS or NMEA 2000 compatibility. If you get this VHF radio, you’ll need to buy a separate AIS device and you won’t be able to connect to marine devices that use the new plug-and-play standard.
In a nutshell
If all you need is a basic fixed mount VHF radio and you don’t want to spend much money on one, Uniden’s UM385BK might fit the bill. It doesn’t support NMEA 2000, but that might not matter if you only need the essentials. It has basic DSC calling features and it’s waterproof enough to withstand splashes in any direction.
The best fixed mount VHF radio with a PA / fog horn feature
Standard Horizon GX2400
The Standard Horizon GX2400 is a feature-rich VHF radio that can do things that most of its competitors can’t. If you’re looking for an all-in-one maritime device, it may be your best option. The GX2400 is the only VHF radio we’ve seen that has a built-in PA system, for example. Its above-average cost is somewhat offset by the fact that it has an AIS feature. The only notable disadvantage that it has is that it costs more than most other VHF radios, probably due to the fact that it has more capabilities.
- Integrated PA system. The 30-watt PA can also be used as a fog horn.
- Built-in AIS. You won’t need to buy a separate Automatic Identification System if you invest in an GX2400.
- User friendly menu system. Standard Horizon’s patented “Easy-2-Operate” menu system has been designed with ease of use in mind.
- IPX8 waterproof rating. Some VHF radios can only stand up to water splashes, but the GX2400 can endure complete water immersion.
- Supports NMEA 2000. NMEA 2000 is superior to the old plug-and-play standard because it’s more robust and reliable.
- MOB (Man Overboard) mode. This feature lets you automatically track the position of anyone who accidently falls off your vessel.
- Multiple mounting options. The included mounting kit supports both desktop and overhead mounting. An optional flush mounting kit provides a third installation possibility.
- Expensive compared to other fixed mount VHF radios. The extra features likely add to the GX2400’s production costs.
In a nutshell
The Standard Horizon GX2400 is pricey, but it could be worth the cost if you’re looking for a deluxe VHF radio with all the trimmings. It has a built-in AIS and you can use the built-in foghorn as a PA to give warnings or navigational directions to nearby vessels. MOB (Man Overboard) mode is another nice extra.
The most advanced fixed mount VHF radio
The Icom M506 is an AIS-equipped VHF radio that supports the new NEMA 2000 standard. What makes it unique, however, is its automatic recording feature. It records you as you communicate, so that you can rewind in the event that a transmission comes in garbled and you miss it the first time around. Like many Icom devices, it is equipped with AquaQuake. AquaQuake deploys low frequency sound waves to clear water away so that sound comes in loud and clear.
- Active noise cancellation. The advanced noise cancellation feature can be turned down or off, which is useful for when you’re trying to pick up weak transmissions.
- Automatic transmission recording. The recording feature automatically saves the last two minutes of the last incoming call.
- Integrated AIS. If you don’t have an AIS for your vessel yet, the built-in AIS feature may justify the M506’s comparatively high price point.
- AquaQuake. This unique feature from Icom clears water away from the speaker through the use of low frequency sound blasts.
- IPX8 waterproof rating. You won’t need to worry if the M506 gets wet because it is water resistant enough to withstand complete water immersion.
- Supports NEMA 2000. The fact that it supports the new marine device interoperability standard means that it’s more future proof that VHF radios that only support NMEA 0183.
- Multiple mounting options. With the included mounting kit, you get two installation choices: board and overhead. Alternatively, you can buy the flush mounting kit if you want to install the M506 in an instrument panel.
- Expensive compared to other fixed mount VHF radios. The built-in AIS feature likely adds to the M506’s production costs.
In a nutshell
ICOM’s M506 has a built-in AIS, plus it has an active noise cancellation feature that can be applied to outgoing and incoming transmissions alike. Since it supports NMEA 2000, it’s more future proof than VHF radios that don’t use the new maritime device interoperability standard. The only downside is that it’s somewhat pricey compared to typical non-AIS VHF radios.
Buying guide for fixed mount VHF radios
If you plan on boating in United States waters, you’ll need AIS (Automatic Identification System) equipment. AIS-equipped VHF radios typically cost more than ones that don’t have this feature. However, the added cost could be worth it because standalone AIS equipment typically costs about $150– so be sure to factor that into your purchasing decision when shopping for VHF radios.
Are you planning on installing several different maritime communications devices? If your answer was yes, you may want to consider getting a VHF radio that supports the new interoperability standard. NMEA 2000-compatible devices are more future proof in this respect than VHF radios that support the old standard, NEMA 0183.
Transmission replay automatically records transmissions, so that you can go back and replay a message if you missed it for some reason or didn’t understand it the first time. This feature is typically found in high-end fixed mount VHF radios.
IPX8 is the ultimate waterproof standard for electronics equipment. Devices that are rated at IPX8 can resist a meter or more of full immersion for 30 minutes or more. That means that if for some reason your vessel gets flipped over in an accident, you won’t have to worry about purchasing a brand new VHF radio once you recover. Some VHF radios are rated at IPX4, which means that they can resist splashes but not complete immersion.
Digital Selective Calling lets you reach out to nearby vessels by means of digital signals. Virtually all new fixed mount VHF radios support DSC. However, not all DSC-equipped VHF radios have the same calling features. If you intend to use DSC on a regular basis, you may want to read your prospective VHF radio’s instruction manual to see what kind of DSC features it has before you commit.
Most VHF radios have channel monitoring features that let you keep track of what’s happening on emergency and weather channels at all times. Typically, manufacturers use terms like Dual Watch and Tri Watch to describe their devices’ monitoring capabilities. Some VHF radios let you monitor custom channel groups.
PA system / foghorn
Depending on the size of your vessel, you may be legally required to carry some kind of electronic sound-producing device aboard your ship. VHF radios that have a foghorn and/or PA feature can help you meet this requirement. If you plan on operating a small vessel like a boat, you may only need to carry a whistle with you.
Though basic fixed mount VHF radios support digital calling, some don’t have the advanced DSC calling features. In addition, budget VHF radios typically won’t survive long periods of water immersion. Prices start at around $150.
Fixed mount VHF radios in the $200 price range usually still lack AIS, but they have better waterproof ratings and expanded DSC features. You’ll begin to see devices that have support for NMEA 2000 at this price point, as well.
Most deluxe fixed mount radios cost around $350. If you don’t have an AIS yet, you may be able to justify the added cost since AIS features are usually found at this price tier.
Frequently asked questions
Q: How can I use my VHF radio to signal for help?
A: Channel 16 is the channel that’s used for emergency calls. That’s why many VHF radios have a dedicated channel 16 button. Once you’re on channel 16, say “MAYDAY” three times. Then say “THIS IS” followed by your boat’s call sign or registration number three times. Next, state your position, the nature of your emergency, the kind of assistance you need and the number of people that are with you in your vessel. After you’re finished relaying this information, say “OVER.”
Q: What if I hear a distress signal while I’m out on the water? Do I have to respond?
A: Yes. Responding is not only a moral obligation, but also a legal requirement. According to maritime law, anyone who hears a distress signal and is able to help “is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance.”
Q: Is it true that I need a license from the FCC to operate my VHF radio?
A: This was true in the past, but it is not the case anymore. If you plan on crossing into foreign waters, different rules may apply. Check the United States Coast Guard’s official website for more information.
- Always use low power when communicating with other vessels that you can see. If you use high power mode, ships you won’t be able to see will not be able to use the same channel while you’re communicating.
- The United States Coast Guard strongly recommends that all mariners use GPS with their VHF radios. If you buy a unit that doesn’t have built-in GPS, you can add that functionality by connecting an external GPS device. If you have GPS, you can send your location data via DSC.
- If you buy all your marine communications equipment through a single manufacturer, you’re less likely to run into interoperability issues. Sticking with NMEA 2000-compatible devices will make installation easier, as well.