Getting ready to cast off anchor and head out on your new boat? Don’t leave shore without a VHF DSC marine radio. A VHF radio may be your only lifeline in an emergency, the only means you have of reaching and receiving assistance. Going out on the water isn’t like going out on a drive. Even in relatively remote areas, if you go down on the side of the road, someone will likely eventually drive by to help you. That simply isn’t the case at sea.
If you need help finding your first marine VHF radio, check out our comparison chart below. You can shop in your budget and cross-compare features for the best marine radios.
- 1 What Is a Marine Radio?
- 2 How They Work
- 3 Fixed-Mount and Handheld
- 4 Do I Need a License?
- 5 VHF Radio vs. Mobile
- 6 Fixed-Mount
- 7 Handheld
- 8 Features
- 9 Marine VHF Radio Reviews
- 10 Uniden MHS75: Never Misses a Transmission
- 11 Standard Horizon HX870: One of the Most Popular Marine Radios on the Market
- 12 Cobra Electronics MR F45-D: a Bare Bones Workhorse
- 13 Standard Horizon GX1700W: a Deluxe, Full Featured VHS Radio
What Is a Marine Radio?
Simply put, a marine VHF radio is the must-have communication device for safety at sea. With a marine radio, you get a talking range between five and 50 miles, and the fastest possible access to the Coast Guard and other rescue agencies. You can also use your marine radio to chat with other boats, check weather alerts, and communicate with bridge or lock operators.
How They Work
Marine VHF radios rely on radio waves to send and receive transmissions. They rely on line of sight in order to function. Anything that blocks line of sight (land masses, earth curvature, etc.) will disrupt the signals. Thankfully there are few such obstacles on the open water.
The most powerful marine radios are those with long antennas and high wattage. If multiple boats simultaneously transmit on one frequency, the strongest signal is the one which will come through.
Fixed-Mount and Handheld
There are two basic types of VHF marine radio: fixed-mount and handheld. You can maximize your range with a fixed-mount system, which also draws from the boat’s electricity (so you don’t need batteries). Then again, if the electrical system goes down in an emergency, you will need a handheld. Buy one of each if you can.
Do I Need a License?
Generally speaking, you do not need a license to operate a marine radio in the U.S. This is the case aboard all “voluntary ships,” i.e. recreational boats. If you operate commercially or internationally however (cargo ships, commercial fishing, tow boats, etc.), you do.
If you have a marine radio which includes DSC capability, then you will have to acquire a nine-digit maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number. This number facilitates search and rescue operations by the Coast Guard.
VHF Radio vs. Mobile
Why buy a VHF radio at all? Why not simply use your cell phone? There are a number of good reasons. For one, mobile networks offer spotty coverage on the open water (nonexistent in many locations). Cell phones lack the weather alert and DSC features of marine radios and are not waterproof.
Most importantly, marine radios facilitate rescue far more effectively than cell phones! You can only call one person with a cell phone. With a marine radio, you can call everyone in range. Those who hear your signal can home in on your exact location—unlike with a cell phone.
You now know the basics about VHF marine radios. Let’s discuss fixed-mount and handheld radios in more depth!
A fixed-mount VHF marine radio is one which is permanently mounted to your boat and wired into the boat’s electrical system, generally the helm. Benefits include a higher power output and range than handheld radios, dedicated power, and ease-of-use in choppy sea conditions. Many options are available for antennas (straight mount, swivel mount, ratchet mount, rail mount, etc.). You can even set up dual stations and navigate using GPS.
Power and Range
A fixed-mount radio can transmit on anything from one to 25 watts of power. Transmitting on one watt allows you to talk to nearby boats without disrupting other transmissions. Transmitting on 25 watts will maximize your range (anywhere from five to 30 miles, depending on clear line of sight).
As mentioned before, you have numerous options when it comes to antennas for fixed-mount units. To get the best range, you want your antenna to be mounted as high as you can. If you plan to attach the unit to a powerboat, do so on the superstructure and pick an antenna with six- or nine-dB gain. If you have a sailboat, mount on the mast and go with three dB.
One popular feature for fixed-mount systems is dual station. This allows you to install a microphone in another room inside your boat and operate dual stations from the helm radio. You can then use the system as an intercom.
This is a feature you will find in higher-end fixed-mount marine radios, but generally not in the less expensive models. It allows you to broadcast to other vessels in the area, line handlers, and so on. To use it, you will need to purchase additional hardware in the form of an external waterproof speaker. You also may find it comes equipped with a feature called Listen-Back. With this, you can convert speakers into microphones to amplify noises. This makes it easy to hear the foredeck hand or fog signals in the distance. Not all hailer functions include Listen-Back, so if you need it, look for it specifically in the product specifications of the model you are considering.
This is the portable version of a VHF marine radio. It isn’t mounted; you carry it around with you. Many handheld units these days offer most of the same advanced features as fixed-mount units. You can get extremely basic models at the lower end and very sophisticated ones at the higher end.
Features can include DSC capability, built-in GPS, a distress button, waterproofing, noise canceling, and much more. Range is lower than what you will get from a fixed-mount radio, but handheld models offer a couple of very important benefits. They offer a backup if your ship’s electrical system crashes in an emergency (or your ship sinks altogether). On top of that, they are portable. You can take them anywhere on your vessel or off of it.
Power and Range
Whereas you can get up to 25 watts with a fixed-mount radio, you are limited to six watts with a handheld radio. You can boost your range by mounting a larger aftermarket antenna. Stand as high on your vessel as possible and you will get the best results. You will usually get around three to eight miles in range.
The larger your handheld radio, the bigger the battery it can hold and the longer its battery life is going to be. Buoyant, lightweight models also generally hold smaller batteries than those which are allowed to sink. At the lower end of the range, you might get seven hours of charge. At the higher end, you can expect around 20 hours. You will need to weigh the importance of battery life in conjunction with other important features such as buoyancy. Figure out what you need most and make your purchase decision accordingly.
As just discussed, some radios these days are made to float. While the tradeoff is a shorter battery life, there are plenty of benefits to a floating radio. For one thing, you are less likely to lose it and have to waste money on a replacement. For another (and more importantly), you might need to use your radio to get rescued in the water. If it sinks, obviously it is useless to you. A buoyant radio could save your life.
Handheld marine radios usually have either a dot matrix or LCD display. A seven-segment LCD display looks like your clock radio; it is blocky and hard to read. A dot matrix display can generate any image, and looks more like the screen on your smartphone or television. While dot matrix may not be a vital feature, it certainly makes for a more pleasant user experience.
What are some important features to look for on a VHF marine radio? The features listed below may cost you extra, but they can provide you with greater value in your purchase.
DSC stands for “Digital Selective Calling.” It is one of the most important emergency features for marine radios, and has actually been built into all fixed-mount units since 1999. You’ll also find it in many handheld units. With DSC, you can send out a distress call to the Coast Guard and all other DSC marine radios in your area with the push of a button. Connect your radio to GPS and you can transmit your exact location. This is very important! Many people never do this, and are wasting a potentially life-saving feature of DSC.
GPS is an incredibly useful feature. As mentioned above, you can use it in conjunction with your DSC to transmit your exact location in distress. This allows rescue parties to make their way to you directly.
GPS is also useful for general navigational purposes. You can view your latitude and longitude, and even set up custom waypoints as you travel. That way you can find your way to and from specific locations. This is excellent for fishing, diving, and numerous other purposes.
AIS stands for “Automatic Identification System.” It is a tracking system you can use to locate and identify other vessels. Using an AIS-equipped transponder or receiver, you can see real-time data on nearby ships including their type, dimensions, cargo, position, speed, destinations, and more. A transponder will broadcast information on your vessel; a receiver will not. Benefits include the ability to transmit your position, detect movements from unauthorized vessels, manage a port, conduct coastal surveillance, and more.
There are two main scanning features to look for. With Dual Watch, you can watch both your priority channel and a second channel while you await a signal.
Tri Watch is similar to Dual Watch, except you can watch three channels at once: your priority channel, channel 09, and any other channel you choose.
The main benefit to these scanning features concerns a regulation which forces mariners to monitor Channel 16 on a consistent basis in case someone in distress sends out a Mayday. With Dual or Tri Watch, you can watch this channel and any others you want to use.
Early warning in case of inclement weather conditions at sea can quite literally save your life. For that reason, you are going to want a marine radio equipped with weather alerts. These should include alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) alerts. SAME alerts are specific to your region; NOAA alerts are national.
Active Noise Canceling
This feature is designed to screen out background noise, improving the clarity of both incoming and outgoing transmissions. This is particularly important at sea, where many loud noises regularly occur—waves crashing, engine noise, high winds, rain, etc.
Marine radios may provide various levels of water resistance. Here is a quick guide to the ratings and what they mean:
- IPX0: No water resistance.
- IPX1: Protection from some vertical drops.
- IPX2: Protection from vertical drops and drops when the device is tilted up to 15 degrees.
- IPX3: Protection from spray up to 60 degrees.
- IPX4: Protection from splashes in any direction.
- IPX5: Protection from water jets from any direction.
- IPX6: Protection from powerful jets of water.
- IPX7: Actual waterproofing in up to three feet of water.
- IPX8: Actual waterproofing in more than three feet of water.
Marine VHF Radio Reviews
Uniden MHS75: Never Misses a Transmission
Uniden has a reputation for making tough, reliable marine electronics products. The MHS75 phone itself is another example of Uniden’s outstanding craftsmanship. This radio’s “Triple Watch” scanner provides an innovative way to monitor several signals at once. However, this phone’s flimsy plastic accessories don’t live up to the Uniden brand name.
- Long battery life. A single charge will last you two or three days.
- Uniden quality. The radio won’t bust apart if you drop it on the ground.
- Comes with a charger. If your boat has a cigarette style 12 volt charger, you can use it to charge the phone as you navigate.
- Helps you steer clear of storms. This radio sounds an alert tone when NOAA issues a severe weather warning.
- Innovative scanning function frees up your hands. The MHS75’s “Triple Watch” feature prevents you from having to fiddle with your radio while you’re piloting your boat. It monitors two different signals while you listen to whatever broadcast you want.
- Waterproof & submersible. The MHS75 floats, so it’s easy to get it back if it falls out of the boat. It’s also JIS8 certified, which means that it can survive being submerged in 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes.
- Good performance. This 5 watt radio performs well inside its somewhat limited 12 mile range.
- The radio itself can definitely weather a storm. However, the plastic clips that hold the radio in place are not very sturdy.
- Other two-way marine radios have better range.
Standard Horizon HX870: One of the Most Popular Marine Radios on the Market
People like the HX870 because it makes them feel safe when they’re out on the water. With its built-in GPS, this radio can detect your position and automatically send it out to a rescue team if you run into trouble. Another great thing about this marine radio is that it is super easy to find if you happen to drop it in the water at night. The strobe light automatically turns on. The HX870 floats, so it’s easy to retrieve.
- Popular on Amazon. The HX870 recently made it to the top of Amazon’s marine radio bestseller list.
- Sends your GPS coordinates. If something happens to you while you’re out, this radio makes it easy to get help.
- Large sized display. The HX870’s huge 2.3” display is huge for a marine radio.
- Intuitive menus. You don’t need to read the manual because the interface is logical and easy to use.
- Strobe light clicks on if it falls in the water. If a sudden wave knocks this radio out to sea, just look for the flashing light and scoop back into the boat.
- 100% waterproof. This radio is JIS8 certified. That means that it’s submersible and totally waterproof– not just water resistant.
- Noise cancellation. The HX870 automatically eliminates annoying static that makes it hard to understand what the person on the other end of the transmission is saying.
- This radio is lightweight, but it’s also large and bulky. If you’re looking for a marine radio that you can easily clip to your belt, you may want to go with a different product.
- The device itself is waterproof, but the charging cradle is not. The charger will stop working if it’s exposed to water.
Cobra Electronics MR F45-D: a Bare Bones Workhorse
MR F45-D 25 watt mountable marine radio doesn’t have built in GPS. However, it is very reasonably priced, powerful and very easy to use. Also, it’s one of the only marine radios on the market that comes with an external speaker jack.
- Comes with mounting bracket. There’s no chance this radio will go overboard. It attaches to the frame of your boat.
- Long range communication. 25 watts of power allows you to send messages to boats 20 nautical miles or more away.
- Noise free transmissions. The built in noise reducer erases static and wind.
- Uncomplicated interface. The MR F45-D doesn’t have quite as many features as some nautical radios. But it has all the basics and it’s super easy to use.
- Stores your call history to memory. The DSC call log records the MMSI ID of all the ships that you communicated with.
- External speaker jack. If you need a volume boost, you can hook up an extra speaker.
- Adjustable backlight. You can dim the backlight at night so that your eyes don’t have to readjust to the darkness every time you look at the display.
- This radio is not as resistant to water as some other marine radios. It’s rated JIS7, which means that it can withstand being submerged under certain conditions. JIS8 rated marine radios are tougher against water.
- No integrated GPS. You have to buy a separate product to send and receive GPS info.
Standard Horizon GX1700W: a Deluxe, Full Featured VHS Radio
The GX1700W costs twice as much as an ordinary mounted marine radio. But, it has twice as many features. With this unit you get built in GPS and DSC. Plus, water doesn’t phase it. This radio is JIS8 certified waterproof.
- Built-in GPS. No need to buy a separate GPS device. The GX1700W comes with built-in GPS functionality.
- Advanced DSC calling. With this radio, you can place DSC calls while you monitor other communication frequencies.
- Send and receive position info. Receive, send and navigate GPS waypoints via DSC.
- Easy to install. Some bulky marine radios are a pain to setup and wire together. But it’s super easy to set up the GX1700W because it’s slim and compact.
- Compatible with RAM3+ remote microphone technology. With a RAM3+ microphone, you’re not stuck in front of the radio anymore. You can walk around your boat and communicate from wherever you want.
- Won’t break if submerged underwater. The GX1700W can withstand being submerged in water for up to 30 minutes. It’s JIS8 certified.
- Water damage guarantee. Standard Horizon is so confident in this radio that it has backed it up with a 3 year warranty that covers all water related breakages.
- This product is expensive compared to other marine radios.
- The built-in speakers are clear but not very loud.