VHF suggestions?

CPS

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I've been pondering VHF radios a bit, and would love to hear from you about features you like/dislike.

I have some thoughts, but also questions.

Waterproof: this seems like a big one. I intend to keep the radio in a PFD pocket. Even if I don't go for a swim, it's gonna get wet. That being said, an IPX7 rating is probably fine when compared to IPX8.

Floating: Less important. Ideally I would tether the VHF to my PFD, which is unlikely to sink. That being said, floating wouldn't be a harm.

High/low settings: I think the option to select between some different watts would be nice. I assume transmitting at lower watts means longer battery life. I did see some that had 3/5 watt as well as some with 1/2.5/5 watt options. What are your thoughts on power levels?

Charging system: I saw some with USB charging, which would be nice as I have a battery bank that I use for a decent amount of other gadgets (phone, camera, etc).
The idea of having a tray that holds regular batteries sounded appealing until I realized nothing I bring on trips has batteries other than my headlamp (1*AAA, fairly useless).
In the future I'd like to get a small solar setup for topping things up on longer trips. USB seems appealing, but are there drawbacks I'm overlooking?

Controls: I'm not a luddite, and I like reading manuals more than most, so I'm sure I can figure out most any radio. That being said, I'd like one that doesn't require mental gymnastics in situations where expediency is critical. In my limited experience with VHF radios there were on/off switches that doubled as volume. I seem to recall a squelch knob as well. Seems most radios I'm seeing online have buttons to adjust, which seems less friendly but perhaps less likely to be accidentally adjusted.

Size: I saw some that were very small, like the Standard Horizon HX40. I've got a decent size pocket in mind, so I don't see much advantage in going smaller. The components are the same as a larger VHF, so I think it's just denser.
Plus, I think a 'ultra compact' radio loses something in ergonomics. I can't imagine it fitting well in the hand.

Voltage: I see some different voltages used in different batteries. What impact does that have?

Price point: I think around $200 CAD is probably about right for a radio that I can trust. Any more seems to be getting a bit more involved than I'd perhaps like. Any less seems a bit dodgy.

One that keeps coming up is the Standard Horizon HX300. Seems to tick the boxes pretty well. Any thoughts on that particular model?

I appreciate any insights you might have.
 

JohnAbercrombie

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Years ago I started this discussion:

You may still find some of the comments there useful, though there have been changes in the radio models available since then.

I like radios that are simple to operate. So a radio that doesn't require accessing menus for any normal operations ('Lock/Unlock', changing power levels, etc.) is my preference. No DSC, GPS, flashing LED lights etc in the VHF for me.

USB charged radios generally have lower voltage and lower capacity batteries, so have shorter operating times on transmit. You really have to dig into the specs to find that info.

A floating radio (like the floating GPS units) is usually just a more compact radio in a bigger case. Like you, I use a tether on my radio.

Size matters - a taller radio will put the antenna tip closer to your face if you have it in the front pocket of your PFD. I don't like that.

The radios I like are more (much) expensive, and a luxury, really - Icom M88 (discontinued) and the newer M85. Ergonomics on both are excellent. The M85 has a knob on the top for channel selection. A lot of radios with up-down arrow buttons will change channel in the PFD pocket unless the 'Lock' is on. This can be vexing if you think you are listening to your mates on Ch 69 and don't hear of a change in plans because your radio switched to Ch 70. Thus the need for easy-to-access 'Lock' control (or a knob with a guard like the M-85).

The Icoms mostly have an ON-OFF Volume knob on top, with a side button (under the push-to-talk) for squelch which is adjusted with the up-down arrow buttons. Years ago I had a nice basic WestMarine radio that had rotary squelch on the top between the volume and antenna, but I haven't seen that on other radios.
It's cheaper to use rubber button covers than to waterproof a rotary shaft, so push buttons are much more common.

Batteries - If the battery pack is removable, you could carry a (charged) spare on trips. They tend to be pricey, though. Or carry an AA battery pack (though they usually aren't as waterproof as the lithium packs).

Power: It takes a lot of extra watts to increase your transmitting range appreciably, so I wouldn't worry about small differences there. If you are out of sight (on the other side of a mountain) more power won't help, usually. All the VHF radios have variable output power settings, as far as I've seen. It's considered bad practice to use more power than necessary.

For trips, having a spare VHF 'for the tent' for listening to the weather lets you keep your PFD radio charged up for emergencies, and provides a backup.

I think any of the Icoms (M25, M73) would do the job. I like the Icom simplicity. The Standard Horizon radios are popular with paddlers. You probably can't go far wrong with either of those brands.
They'll all - regardless of brand- leak eventually. :) Regular fresh-water washes will slow down the corrosion a bit.
 
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Kayak Jim

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I'm with John- simple is good. No DSC for me. Keeps the radio smaller and lighter and no menus.
I have the HX-300 you mentioned and like it. 1800 mAh battery which is not the biggest but bigger than many.

edit: it never occured to me that voltage was also a consideration but yes, the HX300 uses a lower voltage so less reserve power
 
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cougarmeat

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John brought out many points I was thinking of - especially the channel changing via up/down button that seems to change in the process of putting the radio in the PFD pocket. A “lock” would stop that, but if you do need to use the radio - like changing from Channel 16 to another - then you’ll have to unlock it (another “step” or menu).

I wouldn’t worry so much about power/battery life. My experience is the VHF Marine radio isn’t used like a cell phone or ham radio HT. It gets very little talk time. And most radios draw very little power on receive.

I used to require an AA (or AAA) battery source option. But these days, if I’m somewhere with a VHF Marine Radio, I also have a recharger battery pack. They are much less fuss (and cost) than some solar recharging gear. Now if I were going out for weeks and weeks, that might be different. But most my trips are around a week if I’m lucky. Even with an iPad mini, I have no problem with battery power and recharging pack lasting the trip. That said, I don’t use the iPad for anything but short confirmations - tide/current/location. It’s not my camera or communication device.

Note that West Marine devices are rebranded Uniden radios - not that there is anything wrong with that. I did have one issue with a West Marine radio and went back to Standard Horizon.

Though the frequency of the Marine channels is “standard” - channel 16 is the same frequency on all radios - that is not the case with weather channels. There may be an agreement, but not a law. So my WestMarine had all the weather frequencies, but the channel designation, 1 - 10, for those stations was different from other radios. A friend would be listening to the weather on channel 4 and I couldn’t hear anything on channel 4 because on the WestMarine radio, that frequency was channel 7.

Thinking the reception was just weak, It inspired me to add a portable 3 element beam antenna (short length of PVC pipe for boom with elements unscrewing from boom and stored in the pipe) for weather reception. Works well, but once I realized I couldn’t hear the weather station because the channel numbers were allocated differently, I didn’t need it. I think there was also a problem with the squelch - if it was on even only a little, no weather station could be heard.

That was a WestMarine 150 and they took it back for credit. I think the latest WestMarine radios now have the same weather station channel designations as other Marine radios.

Someone once commented that they use a stand alone voice recorder - or many now it’s an “app” for the phone/tablet - to record the weather broadcast so if they miss something, they can play it back without using their marine radio battery. And the recorder probably also allows you to go back/reverse to play something over without having to cycle though all the other reports.

It’s kinda tough to decide; knobs are easier then menus to use, but the mechanics are difficult to waterproof. That said, if I could change anything about the Horizon, I would like the ability to change channels with the twist of a knob rather than a push button. That would allow me to keep the radio unlocked and not worry about accidentally changing the channel as it slides into the pfd pocket (or something presses against the pocket)..
 
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JohnAbercrombie

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Thinking the reception was just weak, It inspired me to add a portable 3 element beam antenna (short length of PVC pipe for boom with elements unscrewing from boom and stored in the pipe) for weather reception. Works well, but once I realized I couldn’t hear the weather station because the channel numbers were allocated differently, I didn’t need it.
Before I went on a trip to Prince William Sound (AK) a couple of years ago, I was given a 'heads up' by a local AK paddler that a telescopic antenna for the VHF would help to pull in the WX. That was absolutely true- in a couple of campsites, I could get the WX in the tent with the telescoping antenna when the 'stubby' wouldn't get anything intelligible. It's a lot easier to write down the WX forecast when cozy in the sleeping bag than to go for a walk up the hill in the wind and rain! :)
Something homebuilt would have worked, but I found an inexpensive telescoping antenna with the correct connector online. NB: I used the telescoping antenna for receive only, and (dry) in the tent. A beam would definitely out perform the telescoping whip, but the telescoping one was just the size of a fat pencil, so easy to tuck in with the other 'tent stuff'.
 

alexsidles

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I use a Standard Horizon HX 300 and can recommend it. The menus and buttons are less ergonomic than Icom, but I don't trust Icom anymore.

I had an Icom M-88 whose battery leads corroded after only five years' use, rendering the radio inoperable. I drove it directly to the Icom USA repair facility in Bellevue, who fixed it at exorbitant cost. Two years later, the exact same component failed again. I gave up on Icom in disgust. Even my cheapo Uniden has lasted twice as long at ten years old and still going strong, all with essentially zero maintenance.

Though harder to use than Icom's convenient buttons and knobs, the buttons on the HX 300 aren't that hard to figure out, with one exception. To switch between US, Canada, and International modes, the button combination on the HX 300 is totally non-intuitive: while holding the down the Channel 16/9 button, press the Clear/Wx button. Insanity! I have to look it up in the manual every time.

I also agree with the other posters who say to bring either a backup radio battery or generic USB charge-pack rather than a solar panel. In years past, I've been out for up to four weeks at a time, listening to weather almost every day, and never had to recharge the battery. A solar panel is a waste of money, unless you're out for, like, months at a time (and even then, I'd probably still just bring multiple charge-packs).

Alex
 
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CPS

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Glad to see so many posts that more or less agree with my thoughts, as well as some firsthand experience with the HX300.

Solar is definately a bit more of a gadget than strictly needed. I've got a pretty large power bank already which I'd use. Would just be intriguing to have recharge capabilities afield.
 

CPS

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Doing a bit more reading tonight and I'm intrigued by the Standard Horizon HX40 as well.

It's smaller than the HX300, which as John pointed out, would keep the antenna a bit further from my face.
It doesn't have USB charging, but that's not a deal-breaker. In fact, having one less point of entry to waterproof against is likely a good feature as far as ruggedness.
It doesn't float, but seems to have better tethering options than the HX300 without adding a clip. I prioritize tethering over floating (I float, and if I don't it's too late for the radio anyways).
The controls seem a bit more layered than the HX300, but not too bad. A few extra button presses to get to WX channels,

Also FM broadcast radio receiver, which I guess is nice...

Anyone have experience with this little radio?
 

mick_allen

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I got a HX40 few months ago based on some of John's good reasoning [size, no extras, voltage, price] but really don't have much experience with it other than appreciating it's small size. There also was $20 rebate at the time so made reasonable sense.
 

cougarmeat

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Just a note that though any old length of wire or telescoping antenna will work on receive - though it’s better to match the frequency desired - on transmit, you absolutely want the antenna to match the frequency. So though a 3rd party telescoping whip might help the WX reception, it may not help, in fact could hinder, the transmit footprint at the marine frequencies.

My current radio is HX-300 and it works great except I have to be careful not to change it’s selected channel when putting it the PFD pocket. I suppose one solution would be to just leave it in scan mode. I don’t have a sense of battery life in various modes because I only need to use it once or twice a year and usually for less than 7 days at a time. A full change before I leave home has been enough. I can’t remember when I used it to actually talk to someone. It’s only been used for WX reception.
 
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AM

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Alex, have you considered tethering your radio to your PFD? I ask because if your radio goes into the drink, you have to stop to retrieve it. I’ve heard that a radio that goes overboard is grounds for failure on a guide’s exam. The guide standard is to tether. I myself started tethering when I heard that and I find it gives me peace of mind.

Cheers,
Andrew
 

JohnAbercrombie

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About tethering the VHF: I don't usually chat on the VHF with my companions when paddling, but last year I was on a paddle where the group split, planning to meet at the lunch spot. A few of us were in fairly rough conditions with current. I had my radio on when people started to do a 'census' to make sure everybody was OK, and to announce a change in lunch spot. I was fairly 'busy' paddling my Thomasson Njord so after I pulled the VHF out of my PFD pocket I just laid it on the spraydeck where I could quickly grab it to transmit. The tether made that possible.
It's nice to be able to drop the radio when I see a breaking wave headed my way! :)
 

alexsidles

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I’ve heard that a radio that goes overboard is grounds for failure on a guide’s exam.
I think I'm a pretty hopeless candidate for a guide's exam. In addition to not tethering my radio, I was also not wearing a drysuit, not carrying a spare paddle or flares or a whistle, did not consult a map or compass, and had not filed a float plan. Had a guide examiner been present, he would probably have had to restrain me!

I don't tether my radio or GPS because I like to move them about on deck from time to time. Sometimes, for example, I have to angle the radio just so to pick up a Wx transmission. Likewise, sometimes when I'm facing an adverse current, I like to set the GPS forward on deck so I can watch it count down the miles (and to lift my spirits when it shows me I am no longer fighting the current). I also sometimes use my radio and GPS on land. In all cases, a tether would be an encumbrance.

If I carried a PLB, I would probably tether it, because it doesn't need to go anywhere. But everything else needs to be able to move.

Alex
 

AM

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No worries Alex — your trips show that what you are doing works for you. If we all confessed to our transgressions, the kayaking police would lock us all up, I’m sure.

My VHF lives in its pocket on my Kokatat vest. When I’m using it, I transfer it to my shoulder strap where it clips close to my face. That gives the antenna more height and it gets the speaker near to my ear so I can hear everything clearly. It also allows me to speak directly into the mic without having to hold the radio — if a wave approaches I can just take my hand off the radio without having to put it down or back in its pocket.

Cheers,
Andrew
 

cyclegranny

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Any experience with the cobra HH350? Looks fairly basic, no dsc or gps. The antenna is retractable which seems interesting to me.
 

JohnAbercrombie

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I don't have any hands-on experience with the Cobra HH350.
I did watch a couple of Youtube videos on it out of curiosity.

You said the antenna is retractable; the review says it is 'removable' - which is pretty standard - most of the name- brand VHFs have removable antennas. That's a handy feature if you have a spare VHF for a backup that you pack with the 'stuff for the tent' on trips- I just unscrew the antenna and toss it with the radio into a small zip stuff sack with a pencil/small notebook for grabbing WX forecasts in the tent at night. Same sack has headlamp, etc... Otherwise the screw-on antenna can be a place for corrosion if any salt water gets to work on the metal connector parts.

Another good feature is that Cobra spare batteries and also the battery pack (for AA or AAA? cells) are cheap (in the USA...), according th that YouTuber.

I like the removable battery pack - most of the USB-charging radios don't seem to have easy-to-swap batteries.

The orange colour is also a plus, IMO.

A disqualifier for me would be that there doesn't appear to be an easy way to attach a lanyard/tether to the radio. Apparently you can only do that if the clip-on belt clip is attached...and that would make it difficult to get in/out of a PFD pocket.

I don't care if my VHF floats, but it would need to have a tether even if it did.

It looks like the Cobra HH350 is selling in the $150-170 CAD range?
Other possibilities would be the Standard Horizon HX40 ($160), ICOM M25 ($180) or even the Standard Horizon HX210 ($200)
(gpscentral.ca -Calgary prices)

All the VHFs have some sort of compromise or drawback - the really nice ones are quite expensive, so that is their drawback! :)
 

JohnAbercrombie

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Other possibilities would be the Standard Horizon HX40 ($160), ICOM M25 ($180) or even the Standard Horizon HX210 ($200)
Update on the HX210:
One of my regular paddling companions has a HX210. He usually keeps his VHF powered on, listening to CH69 when we are paddling. Some members of our (very) little group use 69 for letting people know of changes in the paddling plan while afloat. A week ago we were paddling and he said: "My radio isn't working! The battery must be dead."
We were all wearing gloves and/or using pogies; it was chilly.
At our shore break for lunch, he tried the radio again when he had his gloves off and it powered up fine. It turned out that the power button was recessed into the front panel enough that it couldn't be pressed fully when wearing gloves.
My friend's comment: "My old radio (HX290) had a knob on the top for on/off and volume."

Something to keep in mind; it could be an issue if you needed to use the radio when wearing gloves.... not a scenario that's difficult to imagine.

The thing that has taken the place of the power/volume knob on the HX210 is the port for the optional speaker microphone.
Notice that the CH 16 button seems to be recessed the same way as the power button.


Standard Horizon HX210 labelled.jpg
 
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JohnAbercrombie

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It's not hard to think of a situation where I'd need to use another paddler's VHF.
I had a few minutes, so I thought I'd check the manuals for the current crop of marine handheld radios, to see how they are powered up.
(BTW gpscentral.ca is an excellent spot to check for pricing (in CAD), and there's a working link to the user manual on each radio's page. )
Here's a list:
Standard Horizon
HX40 $160 Power button on the side of the radio below the PTT
HX210 $200 Power button on the front (face)
HX400 $265 Power/volume knob on the top
HX890 $360 Power button on the side above the PTT

Icom
M25 $180 Power button on the side below the PTT
M37 $230 Power button on front
M73 $250 Power/Vol knob on top
M85 $390 Power/Vol knob on top, channel selector also a knob on top
M93 $325 Power button on the front

My thoughts: I know it's cheaper to make a button waterproof vs a knob control, but even that doesn't explain the variety I see. And, there is absolutely no standardization of the controls even within one company's product line.
 
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alexsidles

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"To power up your radio, simply hold down the power button and the channel 16 button simultaneously, then release the channel 16 button but not the power button and cycle the push-to-talk button three times."

John, I know you are a fan of knobs on radios, but buttons do have one advantage: buttons can be used one-handed, whereas knobs generally need two hands (one to hold the radio, the other to turn the knob).

Alex
 
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