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.
Like fixed marine VHF radios, many a modern handheld VHF radio now offers DSC features including as the Distress Alert ‘red button’ and direct MMSI calling. Some even have built-in GPS and AIS receivers too, although handheld VHFs don’t have the range of fixed radios due to their limited power and low antenna height.
Many are also submersible (IPX7/8) and float with water-activated strobe lights to simplify recovery if dropped overboard.
When buying a handheld radio make sure it has 1W and 5W (or preferably 6W) transmit power options and all 57 international marine channels (Ch01-28, Ch60-69, Ch71-88). All good VHFs will also offer all-channel, priority, dual- and/or tri-watch scanning too.
These days they all sport Li-ion rechargeable battery packs, with some also offering an optional battery case for alkaline batteries. But while all come with a 240Vac charger, only a few include a 12V charger lead. Charging cradles are also handy to charge a spare battery pack while the radio is in use.
Most have headphone and remote mike options, often with hands-free voice activation. Several also feature a function that vibrates the speaker to improve audio clarity by repelling any water droplets.
Best Handheld VHF radio
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
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.
Cobra radios are well-proven and competitively priced. The HH600 handheld VHF radio floats, has a 66ch/200wp GPS receiver and DSC. Unlike the Icom M94DE it doesn’t feature an AIS receiver, 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.
For those not needing quite so many functions in a handheld radio, Icom’s M73 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), only it doesn’t float or have a strobe.
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.
ENTEL HT644 Series 2
Entel produces radios for the tough, commercial environment so its non-DSC HT644 is ruggedly constructed and built to IPX8 (submersible to 2m depth for 4h). Loud enough to be heard over high winds, its 2000mAh Li-ion battery offers a full day’s typical use, while an indicator warns of low battery.
The HT644 offers access to all international channels with 1W or 5W power selection and a clear LCD displays the channel in use with other useful information.
Supplied with a 7.4V/1500mAh Lithium-Ion battery, 12Vdc and 220Vac charger leads, a charge pod and belt clip, it can also be used hands-free with an optional Vox controlled microphone and headset.
Despite having limited scan features and no DSC, what it lacks in sophistication is more than made up for by its robust construction.
Vesper’s Cortex is a black box-style DSC VHF and Class B AIS transceiver hub capable of networking up to 10 WiFi portable handsets with a host of additional facilities including intercom. Both the hub and handsets are IPX7 submersible and the VHF and AIS circuits share the same antenna via a built-in, active splitter.
Each rugged, rubber-edged handset has a 4in sunlight visible HD touchscreen, though there are buttons for most key functions such as Ch16, MOB, emergency Distress call, together with a quick selection paddlewheel.
Seven available screen pages provide VHS and AIS data, plus MOB and anchor watch, each containing a data bar at the top displaying VHF channel, transmit power, battery level, GPS and Wifi.
All VHF comms are wireless and NMEA 0183/2000 networkable, although each
handset requires its own 12Vdc-powered charger.
Read our full review of the Vesper Cortex VHF.
PRICE: Hub & handset £1,929.95, additional handset £649.95
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