For Comparison's Sake: VHF Comparison

We compare the latest handheld VHFs, with some surprises.

Handheld VHFs have always been convenient, even lifesavers. The latest, however, are far more than simple radios. There’s integrated GPS, Digital Selective Calling (DSC) to transmit automatic distress alerts, Bluetooth to use the radio as your cell phone, even recording features to play back a missed transmission. We put four of the latest models to the task.

Standard Horizon HX851

What Sets It Apart: A 12-channel GPS receiver records up to 200 waypoints and navigates via compass display. DSC functions allow you to send a distress call with GPS coordinates, and to call boaters privately. Memory scan allows channel programming.

Our Experience: The ultimate tool for a ditch bag, it lets us enter and navigate to waypoints and could have sent our location to radios within range if there'd been an emergency. A strobe was activated when the unit was dunked, and it can blink SOS. We like the ability to run it on AA batteries in a pinch, and a luminescent rubber gasket helps locate the radio in the dark. The rubber cover over the distress button, however, can be difficult to open. The 851 also had the smallest display font. The price is a lot lower than we expected.

Bottom Line: $269.99;

Lowrance LHR-80
What Sets It Apart:** The LHR also incorporates GPS, making it a dual-purpose tool. A simple plotter with Great Circle waypoint navigation offers a basic graphical view; 500 waypoints can be stored. Like the Standard Horizon, DSC functionality provides man-overboard alerts with position, accessed via a single button.

Our Experience: DSC ensures that distress calls on GPS-enabled radios go out with your latitude and longitude for those in range listening on a DSC VHF. We liked the basic chart plotter, as it gave us a sense of position. The LHR also tracked a buddy's position, pinpointing his location and displaying the coordinates, as well as transmitting our position. The hinged door cover over the distress button seems a little easier to access in tense emergencies. The adjustable contrast on our test radio, however, never seemed to make the display as distinct as we would like.

Bottom Line: $219;

Cobra HH475

What Sets It Apart: The "rewind-say again" feature is essentially a digital voice recorder, allowing you to replay the last 20 seconds of any transmission. The HH475 also features Bluetooth wireless technology, allowing you to stash the cell and use the VHF for phone conversations. Memory scan allows you to program frequently used channels.
Our Experience:** The "rewind-say again" feature is slick. Bluetooth allowed us to take phone calls through the radio, with our cell as far as 30 feet from the handheld. The catch? Bluetooth takes precedence when you're on a phone call, meaning you may miss someone hailing you on VHF. Ultimately, however, the Cobra stood out for the simplest reasons. Its screen offers the best contrast, as well as backlighting — and it's the only one with a traditional volume knob.

Bottom Line: $199.95;

Icom IC-M36

What Sets It Apart: Simplicity. This is your classic floating, submersible handheld VHF, able to auto-scan, instantly access channels 9 and 16, and receive weather alerts. "Extra" functions err on the side of practicality. Both outgoing voice and incoming audio compensate for ambient noise.

Our Experience: The M36 did a nice job of canceling out background noise, even when perched in front of a cranking sound system, resulting in loud, crisp transmissions. According to Icom, a submicrophone on the back of the radio "inverts phase" to cancel ambient noise at the main microphone. It comes into play when you're trying to be heard over an engine or wind. You can also "burp" the speaker to clear water; deep tones are produced to vibrate water out of the speaker. Hunt around and you can find the unit for 30 percent less than the listed retail price.
Bottom Line:** $310;