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Best VHF Marine Radios Reviewed

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If you’re in the market for a VHF radio, we’ve got you covered. Here, you’ll find a complete buying guide, as well as reviews of some of the top handheld and fixed mount VHF radios.

Best Handheld VHF Radios

Best Fixed VHF Radios

Related: Best Marine Battery

Best VHF Marine Radios Reviewed

We’re reviewing VHF radios specifically for fishing vessels of less than 65 feet. Larger boats may require multiple stations and functions we don’t cover.

Uniden MHS335BT - Best Budget Handheld VHF Radio

Uniden MHS335BT 6W Class D Floating Handheld VHF Marine Radio with Bluetooth, Text Message Directly To Other Vhf Text Message Capable Radios, IPX8 Submersible Design

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 6W maximum

Waterproof rating: IPX8/JIS-8 (submersible to 4.9 feet for 30 minutes)

DSC: Yes

GPS: Yes

Battery: rechargeable Lithium-Ion; up to 12 hours of battery life; 3 ½ hour charging time

This Uniden handheld VHF radio is a real bargain, and for what you pay, you get a lot of peace of mind.

Offering 6W of transmitting power, expect easy line of sight communication and a realistic maximum of several miles unless you’re communicating with the Coast Guard. For most vessels working inshore waters, that’s enough to keep you out of harm’s way.

This radio provides access to all American, international, and Canadian channels, including all weather channels. That weather information can be critical, and this Uniden provides an inexpensive way to stay informed about rough weather and small craft advisories.

The battery is good and comes with an auxiliary power outlet charger, allowing it to maintain constant power if you wish. On its own, expect no less than 6 hours of battery life, even under heavy use.

While the manufacturer uses words like “floating radio,” this radio does not, in fact, float! But it is rated to IPX8/JIS-8, meaning that it can take a shallow dunking and still function.

Realistically, that’s not great for the radio, and in the real world, this is a model that’s better at resisting spray and rain than getting thoroughly submerged. Plenty of these radios have come through such dunkings with no trouble--but this isn’t the option I’d pick as a kayaker, for instance.

The DSC button is located on the side of the radio, protected by a cover. It’s easy to access if you ever need it, but it won’t get in the way when you don’t.

The screen is large and easy to read, and the controls are relatively simple and easy to use. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the manual.

Sound quality is pretty good, and clarity is up to standard for a handheld radio.

Essentially a budget-minded option, the Uniden MHS335BT nevertheless offers everything you need to stay safe. Of course, not everything can be awesome at this price point, and the plastic bits like the belt clip and battery clip can be more fragile than I’d like.

Pros:

  • Full-featured
  • DSC and GPS equipped
  • Access to all weather channels
  • Good battery life
  • Excellent, easy-to-read screen
  • Acceptably waterproof
  • Good sound quality
  • Good range

Cons:

  • The belt and battery clips can be fragile
  • Full submersion is not a good idea, despite the rating

ICOM IC-M93D

ICOM IC-M93D Marine VHF Handheld Radio with GPS & DSC, 5W

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 5W maximum

Waterproof rating: IPX7 (but only when the speaker microphone jack cover, the

optional HM-165, or HM-228 is attached); floating

DSC: Yes

GPS: Yes

Battery: rechargeable Lithium-Ion; up to 9 hours of battery life; 3 hour charging time

Icom’s IC-M93D is a top-quality handheld VHF radio, but whether it’s worth the premium you’ll pay over the Uniden is something only you can decide.

This VHF system transmits with 5W of power, making line-of-sight communications a snap. Beyond that, depending on the weather, you can expect as much as two or three miles, and of course, further than that if you’re trying to reach the Coast Guard. 

I would say that the effective range of this ICOM is roughly equal to the Uniden, and conditions will affect that distance more than an additional Watt of power.

Like its less expensive rival, this Icom radio provides access to all American, international, and Canadian channels, including all weather channels. As I mentioned above, that weather info can be a lifesaver, and it’s a good enough reason to have a VHF radio on board.

The battery life is acceptable, typically around nine hours or so, but often a bit less with heavy use. Recharging times are in the neighborhood of three hours, though the AC power adapter or auxiliary power outlet charger can maintain constant power if you wish.

The screen is easy to read, and the controls are pretty intuitive, making this radio easy to use. Nevertheless, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the users’ manual.

The DSC can be activated with a safely covered button on the upper rear of the radio, and it’s augmented by the GPS system for added safety.

Sound quality is very good, no doubt enhanced by the Active Noise Canceling system that reduces background sounds for greater clarity.

If you read the fine print carefully, you’ll discover that the ICOM only rates an IPX7 when equipped with an aftermarket microphone jack cover. That’s not confidence-inspiring, even though this radio will float for a while.

Overall, while this is a popular VHF radio, I’m just not sure that it offers anything the Uniden doesn’t, except perhaps a more robust clip.

Pros:

  • Full-featured
  • DSC and GPS equipped
  • Access to all weather channels
  • Good battery life
  • Very nice, easy-to-read screen
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Good range

Cons:

  • Expensive!
  • The IPX7 rating only applies with optional, aftermarket parts

Standard Horizon HX890 - Best Handheld VHF Radio

Standard Horizon HX890 Handheld VHF Navy Blue - Floating 6 Watt Class H DSC Two Way Radio

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 6W maximum

Waterproof rating: IPX8; floating

DSC: Yes

GPS: Yes

Battery: rechargeable Lithium Ion; up to 11 hours of battery life; 3 hour charging time

Standard Horizon is the name to beat in handheld VHF radio circles, and the HX890 goes a long way toward explaining why. This excellent radio is a bit less expensive than the Icom, and I think it delivers the goods at a level its competitors can’t.

6W of power drive transmission, providing easy line-of-sight communication as well as the expected over-the-horizon possibilities of the Coast Guard. Each of these radios offers that kind of performance, so there’s nothing really outstanding about the Standard Horizon here.

And just as you’d expect, this radio provides access to all American, international, and Canadian channels, including all weather channels. From small craft advisories to high winds and rough seas, you’ll be in the know.

Where the Standard Horizon starts to pull away is battery tech. With a battery life that’s at least 50% longer in the real world than either the Uniden or the Icom, you can see what you’re paying for immediately. Recharging times, whether you use an AC adapter or the automobile auxiliary, are in the neighborhood of three hours.

Expect an easy-to-read screen and intuitive controls. That said, I always suggest reading the user manual.

The DSC is activated with a covered button on the right rear of the radio, augmented by GPS to broadcast your radio’s exact position. Sound quality is excellent.

Another point where the Standard Horizon really shines is waterproofing. It really earns its IPX8 rating, and it does, in fact, float (and activates a strobe light, whether powered on or not). That’s a huge selling point to me, as you’ll have no trouble with wind-borne spray or rain, and should your radio take a spill--no worries!

Overall, I think the Standard Horizon is the best handheld VHF radio on the market.

Pros:

  • Full-featured
  • DSC and GPS equipped
  • Access to all weather channels
  • Superb battery life
  • Very nice, easy-to-read screen
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Good range
  • Extremely waterproof and adept at floating

Cons:

  • Expensive!

Uniden UM385BK

Uniden UM385BK 25 Watt Fixed Mount Marine Vhf Radio, Waterproof IPX4 W/ Triple Watch, Dsc, Emergency/Noaa Weather Alert, All Usa/International/Canadian Marine Channels, Memory Channel Scan, Black

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 25W maximum

Waterproof rating: IPX4

DSC: Yes

GPS: No, but can be externally connected

Uniden’s UM385BK is a no-frills, all-business fixed VHF radio that’s ideal for the value-conscious.

Offering the standard 25W of transmission power, the range is more dependent on your antenna and conditions than the radio itself. Typically, the range is excellent when you’re comparing apples to apples antenna lengths.

According to Uniden, this radio is “compatible with an external VHF antenna with a male PL259 (SO238) connector and 50 Ω impedance. Minimum 4 ft, 3dB rated antenna for sailboats, 8 ft, 6 dB rated for power boats.” As they advise, be sure to keep people well away from any antenna while in use.

Easy to use, this Uniden radio has clear controls and an easy to read screen. Sound quality is excellent, including an optional engine noise-canceling system.

As you’d expect, all American, Canadian, and international channels are available, including critical weather information.

And of course, this radio is DSC capable, and you’ll find the distress button behind a red shield on the front of the radio, just next to the squelch knob. Unfortunately, this Uniden doesn’t include its own GPS receiver, though one can be connected for added safety in the event of an emergency.

Solid, dependable, inexpensive: there’s a lot to like about the basic Uniden radio.

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Great sound
  • DSC capable
  • Easy-to-read screen

Cons:

  • Not as waterproof as I’d like

Cobra MRF45-D - Best Fixed VHF Radio

Cobra MR F45-D Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radio – 25 Watt VHF, Submersible, LCD Display, Noise Cancelling Microphone, NOAA Weather Channels, Signal Strength Meter, Scan Channels, White

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 25W maximum

Waterproof rating: JIS7

DSC: Yes

GPS: No, but can be externally connected

Cobra’s MRF45-D is part of a well-respected series of radios, and they’re the choice of professionals like Sea Tow.

That’s saying something, right there.

This radio sports all the usual features, including DSC accessible by a covered button immediately adjacent to the microphone. And while not equipped with a GPS system of its own, you can easily connect a receiver.

An easy-to-read screen and intuitive controls guarantee that you won’t have trouble operating it, and the sound quality is excellent.

All American, Canadian, and international channels are available, including critical weather information.

The MRF45-D offers a maximum of 25W of transmitting power, as you’d expect, with range dependent on your antenna and conditions.

Waterproofing is excellent on this series, and to get this radio to quit, you’d need to throw it overboard. In fact, this is probably the most rugged radio out there--perhaps the reason Sea Tow chose it--and I doubt there’s much you could do to it that could stop it from transmitting and receiving.

For my money, this is the best fixed VHF radio out there.

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Excellent sound
  • DSC capable
  • Easy-to-read screen
  • Extremely waterproof
  • Very durable

Cons:

  • ???

Standard Horizon GX1400 Eclipse - Best Fixed VHF Radio for Rain and Spray

Standard Horizon GX1400 Eclipse Fixed Mount VHF Radio - White

Amazon 

Transmitting power: 25W maximum

Waterproof rating: IPX8

DSC: Yes

GPS: No, but can be externally connected

Standard Horizon is definitely a name to trust in VHF radios, and like their excellent handheld we reviewed above, this fixed radio is a fantastic choice.

As you’d expect, the GX1400 Eclipse receives and transmits on all American, Canadian, and international channels, including the usual weather channels. And of course, it includes DSC capabilities accessible by a covered button immediately adjacent to the microphone. 

As is typical with fixed VHF radios, it’s not equipped with a GPS system of its own, but you can easily connect a receiver.

The screen is big and bright, and the controls are easy to use. Sound quality is excellent.

Expect a maximum of 25W of transmitting power, as you’d expect, with range dependent on your antenna and conditions.

Where the GX1400 Eclipse really shines is waterproofing. Rated to IPX8, this would be my top choice on a center console or other style boat where you can anticipate lots of spray and rain. Simply put, this radio won’t stop until your boat slips below the waves, and maybe not even then (for a while).

Overall, I’d rate the Cobra a bit better, explaining why it’s the choice of Sea Tow. But if I expect my radio to get wet, the Standard Horizon would be my top pick.

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Excellent sound
  • DSC capable
  • Easy-to-read screen
  • Extremely waterproof

Cons:

  • ???

What We Consider When Selecting a the Best VHF Radio

Handheld or Fixed?

Power source

Handheld VHF radios use a lithium-ion rechargeable battery as a power source, which is easily recharged via AC adapter or automobile adapter (the cigarette-lighter style). Most come with mountable cradles that can recharge the battery under constant use, but be aware that these cradles are not waterproof!

We’ll be careful to report accurate battery life info on each handheld radio as well as recharging times.

By contrast, fixed units run on power supplied directly by your boat, and in most cases, that means multiple batteries. As long as you have battery power, you have a radio, though batteries--including entire banks--can fail.

Range

Handheld radios have a typical maximum strength of 6W and sport short antennas. In practice, that limits their effective range to 2 to 3 miles for other vessels but up to 10 miles for the Coast Guard, who can receive signals at longer distances (they’re typically running much more sophisticated radio equipment, much higher off the water).

Fixed VHF radios transmit at a maximum of 25W and depend on robust coaxial cables and larger antennas. Depending on your setup, you can expect 25 to 30 miles for boat to boat traffic and as much as 60 miles with the Coast Guard.

In both cases, VHF radios use a low-power--typically 1W--signal for closer communication.

DSC

Digital selective calling (DSC) is essential.

“The Coast Guard urges, in the strongest terms possible, that you take the time to interconnect your GPS and DSC-equipped radio. Doing so may save your life in a distress situation! Before interconnecting your radio & GPS consult the owner's manuals.”

If you’ve registered your boat for a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, a nine-digit unique identifier of your boat, a DSC-equipped radio can automatically broadcast an SOS.

If so equipped, a DSC-enabled device can also send your GPS coordinates if your radio has on-board GPS reception or is connected to a GPS receiver.

According to the US Coast Guard, “the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has required that all new maritime radios be equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC). DSC uses digital data rather than voice transmission to increase the range of maritime communications, the accuracy of data transmitted, and the ability to direct that information to specific units. DSC also allows a distress signal to be relayed to the closest available vessel, increasing the chance that the call for help will be heard.” 

“In non-emergency situations, boaters with DSC radios can hail one another directly by punching in the unique, nine-digit MMSI number of the vessel they wish to hail. It’s like making a boat-to-boat phone call. DSC minimizes the time necessary to establish communications, clears a lot of the ‘voice chatter’ that would normally be heard on VHF-FM hailing channel 16, and also gives precedence to distress calls.”

I think it’s obvious why DSC isn’t just a “nice to have” feature. It’s a life-saver when the worst happens.

The handheld radios we reviewed are GPS equipped, enhancing their DSC capabilities.

Fixed radios typically do not include GPS receivers of their own, but one is easily attached via a plug on the back.

Waterproof ratings

From rain to spray, you can’t expect your electronics to stay dry on a boat, and if you do, prepare to be disappointed.

Waterproof ratings are no joke for essential equipment like a VHF radio, and the only acceptable standard for a handheld, in my view, is “immersion resistant,” meaning nothing less than a JIS-7 rating or an IPX6 rating.

For fixed radios, a JIS-4 or IPX4 rating should be fine, but I like to see more on boat styles where the radio can expect rain or spray.

The Japan Industrial Standards rating scale:

  • JIS-0 - No special protection
  • JIS-1 - Vertically dripping water shall have no harmful effect (Drip resistant 1)
  • JIS-2 - Dripping water at an angle up to 15 degrees from vertical shall have no harmful effect (Drip resistant 2)
  • JIS-3 - Falling rain at an angle up to 60 degrees from vertical shall have no harmful effect (Rain resistant)
  • JIS-4 - Splashing water from any direction shall have no harmful effect (Splash resistant)
  • JIS-5 - Direct jetting water from any direction shall have no harmful effect (Jet resistant)
  • JIS-6 - Direct jetting water from any direction shall not enter the enclosure (Water tight)
  • JIS-7 - Water shall not enter the enclosure when it is immersed in water under defined conditions (Immersion resistant)
  • JIS-8 - The equipment is usable for continuous submersion in water under specified pressure (Submersible)

The IEC Standard 60529 or IP scale:

  • IPX0 - The product offers no special protection from water.
  • IPX1 - Can resist water that drips vertically onto the product.
  • IPX2 - Can resist water that hits the product at a 15° angle or less.
  • IPX3 - Can take water sprays of up to 60°.
  • IPX4 - Is resistant to water splashes from any direction.
  • IPX5 - Can resist a sustained, low-pressure water jet spray.
  • IPX6 - Can resist high-pressure, heavy sprays of water.
  • IPX6K - Can resist water jets of extremely high pressure. Rarely used.
  • IPX7 - Can be submerged up to 1 meter in water for 30 minutes.
  • IPX8 - Can be submerged deeper than 1 meter. The exact depth is specified by the manufacturer.
  • IPX9K - Resists high-pressure, high-temperature sprays at close range.

Readability, sound quality, and ease-of-use

A radio that you can’t use is almost worthless, and from uncomplicated controls to readable interfaces, there are good and bad options out there.

You also need excellent sound quality: garbled messages won’t do in high-pressure situations.

I’ve noted each of these issues in the reviews.

Final Thoughts

Whether you ride a kayak past the breakers and into near-shore waters, take your center console out to the blue water in search of grouper, or run an even larger vessel on multi-day fishing trips, safety should be your first priority.

A capable VHF radio is essential equipment when you leave the marina, and you really should invest in one. They’re true life-savers.

We hope that this article has helped you narrow your choices, and if it has, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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