A handheld VHF radio is a must for small boat users and cruising yacht owners alike. Duncan Kent looks at six of the latest models.

Handheld VHF radios comes in all levels of specifications and a few now offer DSC and GPS features including the Distress Alert ‘red button’ and direct MMSI calling. One Handhled VHF radio also has an AIS receiver.

Most handheld VHFs are also submersible (IPX7/8) and float with water-activated strobe lights to simplify recovery if dropped overboard.

Some charge with a cradle, some with a USB cable and some have a DC option to plug into a 12v socket.

I’ve picked out 6 of the best top of the range to mid range VHF radios.  We have an option with AIS, a few with DSC and others with Bluetooth connectivity, long battery life and an option to play back the last 20 seconds of transmission to listen again.

Best Handheld VHF radio

ICOM IC-M94DE handheld marine radio

• Battery life: 16 hours (on standby monitoring busy VTS channel)
• Waterproofing: IPX7
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 367g
• DSC: Yes
• GPS: Yes
• AIS: yes

Reasons to buy: Along with built-in AIS, it has a DSC/GPS and features an easy-to-read screen.

Reasons to avoid: The masses of functions result in a shorter battery life. It is noticeably heavier than lower specified models, and it doesn’t come with 12v cable as standard.

Icom’s IC-M94DE handheld VHF radio DSC/GPS/VHF is submersible (IPX7-1m depth/30min) and comes with built in GPS and AIS receivers. The GPS navigation facility provides a 50-waypoint memory plus a MOB marker.

The AIS displays a target’s details on the large, dot-matrix screen while a Target Call feature allows instant DSC communication. A distress call button on the rear of the case is protected by a cover.

The AquaQuake speaker clearing feature plus ample volume allows the radio to be heard clearly over wind or engine noise and, should it be dropped overboard, a strobe automatically activates to aid its recovery.

A generous 2400mAh Li-ion battery offers up to 10 hours of typical operation with a choice between 6W/2W/1W transmit power settings. A mains charger and cradle are supplied, but a 12V charging lead is optional.

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Standard Horizon HX890E VHF handheld marine radio

• Battery life: 27 hours on standby monitoring VTS ch12
• Waterproofing: IPX8
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 310g
• DSC: Yes – Class D
• GPS: Yes

Reasons to buy: The easy-to-read screen and fully waterproof design make this marine radio a top choice. It also has a high-capacity battery with a rapid charger, DSC and GPS functionality.

Reasons to avoid: The higher price and the bulkier/heavier design than a basic model could be a drawback for some.

The HX890 is a rugged, waterproof (IPX8), floating handheld VHF with DSC and built-in GPS receiver and FM radio.

Able to transmit at 6W, 2W or 1W, a Group Monitor feature also allows continuous tracking of up to nine other vessels, displaying them on a page indicating their relative positions to your boat. The 66-channel WAAS/GPS receiver displays your current position, which it attaches to a DSC distress call automatically if activated.

The 890’s menu system is straightforward, even for the most complex features, and its 2.3in display is one of the largest and clearest available.

If dropped overboard it floats and has a water-activated, sequence programmable emergency strobe.

The radio comes with an 1800mAh Li-ion battery for extended use, 240Vac or 12Vdc chargers, plus a pack for alkaline batteries.

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Cobra HH600 DSC handheld marine radio


• Battery life: 10 hours
• Waterproofing: IPX8
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 329g
• DSC: Yes – Class D
• GPS: Yes

Reasons to Buy: DSC enabled, rewind play again function, orange high visibility housing, bluetooth enabled to connect to a mobile phone

Reasons to Avoid: shorter battery life than some competitors

Cobra radios are well-proven and competitively priced. The HH600 handheld VHF radio floats, has a 66ch/200wp GPS receiver and DSC., but it will link to your mobile via Bluetooth, enabling phone calls to be made from the radio.

Transmit power is selectable between 1W/3W/6W and your GPS co-ordinates are transmitted automatically with a DSC distress alert.

This floating VHF is submersible (IPX8) and has a seawater-activated emergency strobe. It also has a dedicated MOB key and a torch.

Noise-cancelling technology reduces background noise, and it will rewind to replay a reply if not heard clearly.

Both mains and 12V chargers are included, plus a case for using standard AA batteries in the event of being unable to recharge the built-in 2000mAh Li-ion battery.

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Icom M37E handheld VHF radio

• Battery life: well over 48 hours (on standby monitoring busy VTS channel)
• Extra battery tray/number and type of batts. Yes/3 x AAA
• Waterproofing: IPX7
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 299g
• DSC: No
• GPS: No

Reasons to buy: Another VHF marine radio with an easy-to-read screen and impressive battery life. It also has robust, no-nonsense casing and versatile charging options.

Reasons to avoid: Not a DSC/GPS-equipped model.

For those not needing quite so many functions in a handheld radio, Icom’s M37 series VHFs are simpler, but no less powerful or rugged. Like the more sophisticated M94DE, this 6W radio is still made to IPX8 standards (totally waterproof and submersible), .

That said it boasts plenty of other desirable features including ‘record and playback’, 700mW audio output with AquaQuake speaker clearing, dual/tri-watch channel monitoring, Ch16/preferred channel quick select, tag scanning and channel naming.

It comes with a high-capacity 2000mAh/7.2Vdc Lithium-ion battery (said to last up to 18 hours in power-save mode) and there’s a 4-bar battery charge status indicator on the LCD display. A mains charging adaptor and cradle are supplied, while options include a choice of hands-free, voice-controlled headsets and a 12Vdc charger lead.

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Cobra MR HH500 FLT BT Handheld Floating VHF Radio

• Battery life: 10 hours
• Waterproofing: IPX7
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 272g
• DSC: No
• GPS: No

Reasons to buy: Floating, waterproof and had bluetooth connectivity to a mobile phone

Reasons to avoid: Some other VHFs offer better battery life.

I have been using the Cobra HH500 VHF Handheld Marine Radio for the past seven years. As Tech Editor here at Yachting Monthly, and a marine comms specialist I’ve tried a VHF marine radio or two, but what I like about the Cobra is that the Bluetooth connectivity with a mobile phone allows waterproof mobile phone calls.

A great feature on this handheld VHF, seen top right on the unit keypad is the rewind-say-again button, which allows you to quickly re-listen to the previous transmission as the unit records the last 20 seconds.

It charges via a drop-in holster/cradle, which has two cable options, one for 12v and the other for 240v charging. The Cobra HH500 also comes with an additional battery tray that takes 5 x AA batteries.

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Cobra Marine HH350 handheld VHF Radio

• Battery life: 16 hours
• Waterproofing: IPX7
• Floating: Yes
• Weight: 262g
• DSC: No
• GPS: No

Reasons to buy: Floating, waterproof, simplicity and reliability

Reasons to avoid: does not have DSC/GPS function of higher specified radio models

The Cobra HH350 handheld VHF radio is a great all round solid choice of waterproof VHF radio. The battery life offered of 16 hours gives a full day on the water without needing to charge. This battery life is achieved in part because of the simplicity of this handheld. Unlike the more expensive higher specified models, this one doesn’t have DSC/GPS or bluetooth connectivity. It also dispenses with the handy function of rewind say again.
If simplicity is your thing, then this may well be the radio for you. It is substantial enough in the hand with a nice shape enabling good grip.
As will all of the Cobra handheld radios I like the one off switch being integrated with the volume knob on the top. It makes it really easy to access and operate in the dark, with gloves on, or with your teeth if you have to!

I also like the high visibility orange float panel that this and other models of Cobra radio have. It makes it easier to find in a crowded electrical cupboard.

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