Anyone that spends time out on the ocean knows how important safety is. A dependable marine radio plays a big part in this. Today, we recommend 5 of the top models available in 2020.
A VHF (or very high frequency) marine radio is an essential communication device that you can use both verbally and digitally to pass on information to anyone else in and around the water.
Rescue teams, lock operators, harbor guards and just about anyone else you need to contact can be reached in the event of an emergency.
If you've ever searched for a reliable marine radio, we're sure you'll understand that it is not quite as simple as just picking the first one you come to.
There's a lot of choice out there and also a lot of technical 'lingo' that not everyone is familiar with.
That’s where we come in, because in this post we are going to look at what we feel are five of the best marine radios on the market. We've also put together a buyer's guide where we explain the key features that you should base your decision on.
So, before you set sail or start the engines and head out to sea, please take a good look through the following post, one that we hope is as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, reading our marine VHF radio reviews.
Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, we may make a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
The Top Models Compared
See how the leading marine radios compare in the table below. We cover each in more detail following the table.
OUR TOP PICK
Standard Horizon HX870
- Built-in GPS
- 6W power output
- Waterproof & Floats
- DSC enabled
- NOAA weather alerts
- USB data port
- All international marine channels
- S.A.M.E weather alerts
- 25W power output
- DSC enabled
Uniden MHS75 Handheld
- All international marine channels
- NOAA weather channel alerts
- Dual, quad and triple-watch
Cobra Electronics MR F45-D
- NOAA weather alerts
- 25W output
- DSC enabled
- International coverage
- 3 channel maps
- NOAA weather alerts
- Sound boost
- AquaQuake function
- All international marine channels
Our Marine Radio Reviews
Take a look at our recommended radios in a bit more detail. In this section, we discuss the important features that make these models stand out in a crowded market.
Standard Horizon HX870 *** Our Top Choice ***
With the HX870, Standard Horizon have taken huge leaps and made stunning improvements on the immensely popular HX851 model.
The Standard Horizon HX870 is an extremely portable and compact handheld radio that is designed for anyone keen to stay on the move while out at sea. Due to its design and size, you are able to move around freely in whatever vessel you are travelling in.
It has a huge variety of useful features such as the integrated DSC (digital selective calling). This makes it an excellent choice for sending distress signals.
There's also the 66-channel WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GPS that gives it a position accuracy of greater than 3m more than 95% of the time (there's no extra fee to use this technology).
The GPS system presents the coordinates on-screen too, so they can be easily reported orally. This technology is known for being extremely fast and reliable.
While this model is definitely smaller and more contained than its cousin the HX851, Standard Horizon have still ensured it has a bit of bulk to it that makes it a very substantial piece of kit.
Many people may not like the fact though that it doesn't have the blue or orange background that many others have on their LCD screens. However, the large dot-matrix version the HX870 has is very professional looking and cuts to the chase, aided by a white backlight.
One aspect of this handheld radio that really sells it is the fact that it has an IPX8 rating. Although we cover this in our guide further down the page, if you're unfamiliar with these ratings and wondering just how good IPX8 actually is - it's, save for one, the highest rating an item can have and almost completely watertight and invincible in watery conditions.
As highlighted in its name, it will float on the surface, which obviously makes it much easier to grab if you are capsized or otherwise find it and/or yourself too in the water.
When the HX870 marine radio hits the water, a strobe light is activated by the contact with the water and illuminates immediately. This makes it even easier to spot when you are rummaging around or flapping around like a fish trying to find it. As if that wasn't enough, the keypad also lights up with a faint reddish tone.
Another important feature that the Standard Horizon offers is its Class D 70-channel DSC, which can be something of a life-saver in emergency situations. With one button push, a distress call can be transmitted to local boats and the coast guard.
Standard Horizon have designed this marine radio with a USB port which can be used to collect information. For example, you can upload MMSI numbers onto its memory, program groups of MMSI numbers, download relevant DSC logs, create and save waypoints and then download them when you need to and program scans.
You can store a maximum of your 10 favorite channels into the preset key and when you tune into the NOAA frequencies you are able to pick up some crucial weather reports.
The battery that comes with this marine radio is also great, as it gives you a minimum of 10-hours of use for every charge.
A further safety measure that features on the HX870 is the MOB function which automatically records the GPS coordinates where it was triggered. It then begins a timer that indicates how much time has passed since the MOB was triggered and also provides a route back towards those coordinates with a distance and direction to help you get back.
All in all, we really think this is one of the best on the market right now.
Bottom Line: If you are looking for a high-quality handheld marine radio that is packed full of features but remains easy to use, then this is the perfect choice. This is the one we recommend over all others. The best handheld VHF marine radio.
A reliable and sturdy VHF marine radio is the Uniden UM380 Class D model. This stands out as coming from a high performing manufacturer and being available for an extremely affordable price.
The downside compared to something like the Horizon Standard model above is the fact that while it does have some incredibly useful features, they are very few and far between. This is probably a good choice if you are not looking to sail into particularly dangerous waters and don't sail very far out from the coast.
As this is also DSC capable like the one above, it means it is the modern-day equivalent of having an instant distress management system. When this is combined with the triple-watch functionality, it ensures that the UM380 is a great all-rounder when it comes to communication.
This marine radio is a mobile station, but it can be installed and positioned on the radio mount, if you have one, on your boat. It has a backlit display with a bright and clear orange light, which benefits from not being too dull or too bright. As the mic connector is pointed in a downwards position, you need to pull it up to switch it on, which causes strains on the connection and could prove problematic in the long run.
The UM380 radio also has a keypad that is backlit and features larger buttons than some other devices, giving it a distinct tactile advantage over many of its competitors. Although it is not quite as waterproof as others on this list, it still has enough resistance that it will be able to stand up against a reasonable amount of splashing.
Compared to more complicated setups this one is fairly easy to install and is very easy to use. You are able to run a channel memory scan, but can also assign names to channels too.
It is capable of transmitting at 25-watts and has a low/high power selector switch. As noted earlier, it is a triple-watch device, so it will check channels 9 and 16 every couple of seconds. If it was only a dual-watch, it would just check channel 16.
Along with the NOAA weather alerts that many marine radios, like the Horizon Standard model above will pick up, for instance, it can also pick up what are known as Specific Area Message Encoding or SAME alerts. You will be given a code for the specific area you are in which tells you just how serious the weather conditions are.
The Digital Selective Calling (DSC) gives you the opportunity to press one single button to send out a distress signal to someone that is close to you. This starts the process and then the features for Position Request and Send features help to increase the speed of it all.
It is hard to argue with the fact that this is a nice affordable price tag and that it has improved circuitry and transmit power compared to other models from Uniden, that enables you to use it to communicate without much in the way of interference.
Bottom Line: If you are looking for a marine radio that is designed for more recreational sailing or aquatic adventures and you're on a tight budget, you could do a lot worse than the Uniden UM380.
Recommended Next: Get the right marine GPS system with our awesome guide.
Uniden MHS75 Handheld
Next on our list is another from Uniden. This time though, it's a handheld radio, which has an especially compact size that makes it incredibly portable.
It has waterproofing (IPX8) and an aluminum housing that make it very durable and able to withstand a lot of use and abuse and water damage. We would recommend that this is coupled with a fixed mount radio too, but it has enough features and very simple controls that make it a great investment.
This is perhaps one of the most attractively designed models on our list with its die-cast aluminum body. Unfortunately, though, it does not float and is submersible. However, as it comes with a waterproof rating of IPX8, it is still well-protected (you just might not find it again if you drop it). The battery has its own waterproofed gasket and as a whole, it can withstand being in as much as 1.5-meters of water for around 30mins.
There is a large LCD screen on the face of the radio and this is lit, like many others on our list and on the market, by a warm and eye-catching orange-tinted backlight. This is a great color that is effective at both night time and day time.
As noted earlier, it has a very simplistic design and as such has only eight buttons on the front of the unit with two knobs right at the top. It measures 2.5" wide by 4.6" long/tall and its functions are spread out between the buttons at approximately two functions per button.
When it comes to power, this portable radio has three different levels - 1W, 2.5W and 5W. It is able to receive all the standard Canadian, US and even international channels and also receives NOAA weather alerts to help you stay in the know and up to date about the changing conditions when you are out at sea.
Uniden have also enabled this radio with the additional function of when the Emergency/Weather Alert is switched on and the NOAA sounds an alert, it will actually make an audible sound to get your attention, which is particularly useful if you are working at the other side of the boat to where the unit is placed at that time.
Within the range it is capable of transmitting at and receiving it has a very stable transmission and a highly effective rating of 75dB when it comes to the sound level. Although we think it has a fairly good sound output level, it's not particularly great if you are hard of hearing.
Similarly to the other Uniden, highlighted above, this can be switched into a triple-watch radio. This means you can monitor channel 9 and 16 for signals while you are, at the same time, listening to current open channels. Again, it runs every two seconds, but you also have the option to switch it between quad-watch and dual-watch options too.
One thing it has over some of the models on our list though is the fact that the battery will run for 12-hours every time you charge it.
Bottom Line: As it is not fixed, it may suit you if you are looking for an incredibly portable and affordable marine radio. While it won't float, it is waterproof and should withstand a pretty good dunking.
Cobra Electronics MR F45-D
Even at the lower end of the market, you may still find the marine radios we have featured in our list, they may still be too pricey for your modest budget. If that is the case, this entry-level radio may suit you, especially if you are new to sailing and don't intend on going too far out from the coast. Both emergency and preemptive situations are covered well by the radio in the form of the NOAA channel alerts and the DSC system.
Setup is relatively simple and will only take a few moments, thanks to the universal-size and design bracket. Obviously audio performance is important and it is what you would expect from this kind of model. There are easy to select transmission powers and the audio output is loud enough.
Thanks to the design of the station it is mounted on to, you can swivel the Cobra MR F45-D down and up for greater convenience. The microphone connects into the front of the device.
When we say this is a lightweight and portable unit, it is just 2.4" in length and 6.2" in width. You also get the microphone mount and a cable for the GPS interface when you invest in this marine radio.
Connections that come out of the rear can be attached to a GPS device or an external speaker. The display is monochromic and 2.3" with a backlight that can be adjusted to your own preference, but in general it is not too strong and you have the option to turn it completely off or switch it to medium, low or high. Another great benefit of this model is that it meets the JLS7 standard for effective water damage tolerance (submersible up to 1m for 30 minutes).
This radio comes with a GPS built into it. This means you will be able to obtain information about your current, correct location and also navigational information about where you are going. It has been designated as being a Class-D unit.
Like most of the other radios on our list and any good quality modern marine radio, it has REF functionality, which you can use to make quick and easy distress calls either on channel 9 or channel 16. There is a continuous dual-watch that runs every couple of seconds on Channel 16 so that you are always in the know about what is happening around you within close proximity.
Furthermore, the microphone has a button that enables you to quickly select between channel 9 and channel 16. When you need to use it, the DSC button is red and located conveniently at the front of the unit.
Like many of the other marine radios we have featured, you can receive all the appropriate Canadian, International and US channels.
Bottom Line: It does what it says on the tin and features a wide range of capabilities, considering its low price.
The last one on our list is from the highly reputable company Icom. The Icom M36 is a floating handheld VHF marine radio that has one over many of the most handheld models in that it has an output of 6W, when many are only capable of 5W.
Some of the other features of this that make it standout include the charging cradle that it comes with and the loudness boost. It also, like most of the others on this list, has NOAA alerts and triple-watch scanning. These ensure that you are always up-to-date with the current weather conditions along with any emergencies or warnings signaled for the area you are currently in.
If you are capsized or have any other difficulties, it will simply float to the surface, making it easy to grab when you get your bearings. It is only 2.5" in width and 5.8" long/tall and is relatively lightweight at just 9.7-ounces. What Icom have not scrimped on though when it comes to this model's compact size is the screen. It also benefits from having the standard orange-tint that is appealing and not too off-putting.
Obviously, it is important that any marine radio you use has some degree of waterproofing. As we've seen from many of the others on this list, it can vary quite a bit from model to model. However, with a rating of IPX7, this radio is definitely on the highly waterproof end of the market and is able to remain functional if it is in 1-meter of water for as much as 30mins.
Further to the waterproofing, it has an interesting feature, not found on other models in our list, called AquaQuake. This emits a small burst of low-frequency sound that helps to drive out any water that has managed to get into the speaker, once you have taken it out of the water. Although this is a nifty little feature that excites us quite a bit, we would still give it a thorough dry just to make sure it is free of excess water before using it again.
You operate this marine radio with the 10 buttons that are found on the front of the unit. There is a push-to-talk switch that is conveniently placed to the side of the unit and you have the option to choose from various power options up to a maximum of 6W. The weather alert channel can be selected quickly with just one press of a button. You also have the option between scanning for normal channels and priority channels.
We noted at the start of this review that there's a ‘loud’ button that will instantly push the volume of radio to maximum with a simple button press. There is also Voice Boost and Clear Voice options that will cancel out any noise from the mic to make the sound quality a little crisper and clearer. Again, like others on our list, this has the option to function as a triple-watch or single-watch radio and is compatible with all international, Canadian and USA channels.
One major downside this has compared to some of the others on our list though, despite how good it is (and we really do think it's great) is that for a single charge it only has a maximum of eight hours' worth of power.
Bottom Line: When it comes to great quality marine radios, this definitely fits the bill. Despite its relatively low run time on a single charge, it does offer a wide array of excellent features and capabilities and is a brilliant entry-level marine radio.
So, if you are planning on a trip to sea or starting a new passion for sailing and other aquatic activities, a marine radio is surely one of those devices that you need to invest in.
With our guide to five of the best available at the moment, we have hopefully made your choice a little easier than it was before.
The marine radios showcased above were specifically chosen as great options for all budgets and all experiences. So, although there may be one or two that are out of your price range, there are also a couple of extremely affordable models.
Take the last on our list for instance, the Icom M36 is a perfect entry-level model. Sure, it lacks a lot of the sophistication of other radios, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in performance, in its lightweight design and some really cool extra features. The loudness button and the AquaQuake are two in particular that are worth noting again.
Compare that to the beautiful beast that is the Standard Horizon HX870 marine radio that we covered first. That was a beast in more than one way, with an IPX8 rating and the ability to float on the surface of the water, that was one radio that was built to cope with all you could throw at it. Definitely more expensive than most on the list, but utterly and completely worth it, if you can afford it.
It offers so much and is ideal for the more serious sailor, boatman or aquatic adventurer who likes to brave tougher seas. That’s why if we were going to buy any ourselves, we would invest our money in the Standard Horizon model. A solid, robust and reliable investment.
We know though that it is not the most ideally priced for everyone and not even the most suitable in design and in terms of features than some of the others featured.
This is why, if we had to pick out one that was more reasonably priced and that offered the best value for money across the board, we’d have to pick the Uden UM380 radio.
It was lower in price than others featured, but also had the benefit of being fairly compact, lightweight and still with enough features that a newbie could get reasonable amount of use out of it.
So, now you have read our marine radio reviews know what we would pick as the five best, as well as the best value for money and the best overall marine radios.
The choice of which you choose for your own needs and requirements, is up to you entirely. Think about the budget, sure, but weigh up everything else too. Choose the marine radio that will be the most useful and effective for the conditions you will be using it in. Safety when you are out to sea, even only a couple of hundred miles out from the coast, is crucial.
Remember, the waters of the world can be cruel mistresses, so be prepared and buy the best handheld marine radio you can afford.
VHF Marine Radio Buying Guide
It can be difficult and overwhelming when shopping for the best VHF marine radio, because there are so many different styles, types and brands to choose from. That's why we’ve tried to help you out a little by providing this buying guide.
Why Not Use a Mobile?
This is a question that often arises regarding VHF radios. Many people wonder why you can’t just use a mobile phone.
Basically, the short answer is that the mobile network’s coverage is poor when you are out to sea. On the other hand, a marine radio will always have a signal, unless there are big obstructions like mountains that can block the signal. However, this is unlikely to be a problem when you are out on open water.
Handheld or Fixed Marine Radios?
There are two main types of marine radios – handheld and fixed. Below, we look at both, to help you decide which kind of configuration might be best for you.
Handheld Marine Radios - these are portable and are designed so that they can float in the water if dropped. Just in case it becomes fully submerged it can be waterproof to an extent.
Generally, handheld radios do not have as a far and wide a range as fixed versions, but you can still find models capable of signals between 3 and 8-miles away.
Fixed Mount Marine Radios - these radios offer a greater amount of functionality, they produce signals that go further than handheld models and also rely on an antenna to get the best signal range they can.
Obviously, the last thing you want is a radio that is hard to operate. Therefore, it may be in your best interest to find a radio with controls that are easy to use.
One of the most important features you should look for is soft keys. Ideally, find a model that has three or four multi-use keys that help you to complete various tasks. The soft keys can normally be switched between functions easily.
Another feature to look out for in the interface is up and down keys. These are handy because they enable you to select different functions on the display.
When you don’t have these, it can be a lot harder to switch between different channels quickly. Most radios are already incorporated with these kinds of features.
Some models feature rotary buttons instead of those that use “up” and “down” press technology. This offers a degree of convenience when it comes to selecting functions and changing the levels of squelch, volume and channels. It really depends on your own personal preference as to which is best for you.
Marine Radio Brands
There is a multitude of different marine radio brands releasing models into the market all the time. However, there are actually only a small number of these that are worth highlighting. To ensure you get a marine radio that will work exactly how you need it to, when you need it to you need to consider the reputation of the brand behind it.
It is never very sensible choosing a particular marine radio because it has the lowest price. Some of the brands that are worth giving consideration to, many of which are featured in our list of the best marine VHF radios above, include:
- Standard Horizon
We appreciate that it can feel like a massive gamble to invest money in a brand that you may not have heard of yet, but when you look at online customer reviews and names repeatedly come up again and again you know you are onto a winner.
Obviously, as you will be using your marine radio out at sea, it needs to have some degree of waterproofing. Even if it doesn’t end up submerged in the water and you are never stranded, water could be splashed onto your radio.
The IPX rating, otherwise known as International Protection or Ingress Protection is what you need to look out for. A rough guide to these ratings and what they mean is explained below:
- IPX0 – No water resistance at all
- IPX1 – Protection against dripping water
- IPX2 – Protection against vertical drops if tilted to as much as 15-degrees
- IPX3 – Protection against spraying at as much as 60-degrees
- IPX4 – Protection against splashes
- IPX5 – Protection against jets of water
- IPX6 – Protection against powerful jets of water
- IPX7 – Waterproofing in as much as 1m of water
- IPX8: Protection when immersed more than 1 meter deep.
- IPX9: Protection against powerful temperature water jets.
The best waterproofing you should aim to get for a marine radio is anything from IPX7 to IPX9.
Many manufacturers fill their handheld and fixed marine radios with numerous extra features and many of these make them even better value for money. Some of the most common extra features you should look out for, if you feel they would be useful, include:
Active Noise Cancelling – this helps to filter out noise in the background to improve the clarity of the sound quality.
Weather Alerts – this means you can receive SAME and NOAA alerts regarding weather.
Automatic Identification System – this allows you to monitor for, track and find other vessels.
GPS – this feature gives you the ability to transmit your precise location when you send out a distress signal.
Digital Selective Calling – this sends out a distress signal at the touch of one button.
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