Best Handheld VHF Marine Radio Reviews and Buying Guide for 2018
As a boater, you’ll believe it when I say that a handheld VHF Marine Radio is more of a safety tool than a convenience gadget.
It could be your last line of defense when the waters lose their tranquility.
Fortunately, these devices aren’t as expensive and they have a lot of other uses other than helping you make sea-to-harbor calls.
This article brings you some of the best handheld VHF marine radios for boat operators, coastguards, and harbormasters. Our buying guide also has important tips on how to get the best model from all the available options.
We’ve analyzed 571 reviews of handheld vhf marine radios, and compared them side-by-side.
Below you will find comparison chart.
Cobra MRHH125 VHF Radio
Icom IC-M73 01
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|Actual Range||Audibility||Ease Of Use||Durability|
A few things to keep in mind
If you are shopping for a marine radio for the first time, I highly suggest that you head to our buying guide section first. It will help you understand some of the key features that differentiate the models that we’ve reviewed in this list.
If you are in a hurry though, here are some important questions whose answers might help you make an educated decision when picking your next boat radio;
- Do you want a fixed or a handheld unit?
- Is it waterproof?
- Is the radio submersible?
- Does it float?
- Does it offer a dual or tri-watch function?
- Will it allow you to get automatic weather and emergency alerts?
- What types of batteries is it compatible with?
- How long does it battery last?
- Does it have a GPS?
Our Picks of the Best Handheld VHF Marine Radios
Cobra MRHH125 VHF Radio – Best For Ease Of Use
Our first pick here is a radio that has been designed purposely for coastal cruising. This is the most basic model from Cobra but it offers almost all the most important features that you’d want to see in a marine radio.
The first feature that you’ll certainly like is that it is designed to keep monitoring Channel 16 at all times. Although not unique to this model alone, this is a great feature that ensures that you never miss out on any important announcement or warning while in the sea.
Another great feature is that this radio has a dedicated key for channels 16 and 9. These are the 2 major channels used for hailing, mayday calls, safety, and emergency. The latter is used mainly in Northern New Jersey, New England, Florida, and South Carolina.
On the same note, it’s a really good idea that the MRHH125 is able to connect to up to 10 NOAA weather channels. This ensures that you are up to date on any weather changes on time and be able to plan beforehand.
Importantly, we appreciate this radio’s huge backlit display and large numbers. This is a great benefit not only to elderly folks who have issues reading small numbers, but it might also come in handy in a tight situation where every second counts.
The Cobra MRHH125 is JIS4 ‘waterproof’. Simply put, it is only splash resistant and should, therefore, never be submerged in water.
About signal coverage, this radio offers 1-3 power output. This isn’t the best in class but it’s just enough for a few miles. Again, this explains its low price.
The MRHH125 uses rechargeable NiMH batteries but it can also use alkaline AAA batts in emergency situations.
Other notable features include programmable memory channels that allow you to store your favorite channels, illuminated function keys for excellent visibility, and button lock to prevent accidental change of settings.
BaoFeng BF-F8HP – Best for Value for Money
The Baofeng BF-F8HP is among the most popular VHF marine radios around the internet today. This is a sibling of the Baofeng UV-5R- another 2-way radio that rules the roost in our other list of the best hams for beginners.
The major difference is that the BF-F8HP has been designed to offer more reliability and convenience without being as expensive as similar models from other seemingly larger brands.
One thing that we can’t deny about this radio is its powerful coverage. It comes with a high gain antenna that allows transmission up to 25 miles away.
But what’s even better is that you are free to upgrade this antenna with a top-level aftermarket unit and be able to transmit even further.
Going hand-in-hand with the impressive coverage capability is the incredible battery life. This radio uses a 2000-mAh battery that could last you up to 24 hours before the need to recharge again.
We also do like that the BF-F8HP is a dual band radio in that it can transmit on both the VHF and UHF spectrums. What this means is that it is not limited to a single band. So, if you want a radio that you can use both in the sea and on land, I bet this is a great choice.
We did find a few drawbacks though. First, unlike other radios that are straightforward to use, the BF-F8HP has a learning curve despite the detailed user’s manual that it comes with.
Secondly, it is not waterproof. That’s a big blow for a radio that you intend to use mainly on water. However, if you are excited about its extensive coverage and long battery life, then you can solve the issue of waterproof-ability by having it in a waterproof bag whenever you are not using it.
Icom IC-M73 01 – Best For Clear Transmissions
Despite its simple appearance, the Icom M73 is a professional-grade radio with several high-end features that we haven’t seen in our first 2 picks.
One feature that easily stands out is its slim and rugged hourglass design. Besides giving it its impressive appearance, this design also makes it easy to hold for long while still feeling very comfortable.
Interestingly, this radio also comes with an optional VOX headset. As I have explained in the buying guide, this is a great feature that allows you to use the radio hands-free. Basically, it keeps the microphone active and turns it on the second you start talking.
The Icom IC-M73 01 also receives a lot of praise for its relatively higher output and audio integrity. With 6 watts of transmission power, this radio promises an extended communication range of up to 15 miles on a clear terrain.
About ensuring clear audios, this radio is fitted with Aqua-Quake which is a water draining function that prevents its 700Mw speaker from distortion.
It also has a Bass Boost Function that further boosts audio clarity and an Active Noise Cancelling technology that minimizes up to 90% of background noise- according to the manufacturer.
Another impressive feature that we can’t fail to mention is that this radio has an IPX8 waterproof rating. For the uninitiated, this rating means this radio is not only totally waterproof, but it can also withstand being submerged 4.9ft in water for up to 30 minutes.
Even better, this radio is capable of monitoring 2 or 3 channels alternately to keep you alert to all important info.
This marine radio uses a 2000-mAh radio that can last you up to 17 hours on a single charge. The package brings you a rapid desktop charger and a cigarette lighter cable for more recharging options.
Standard Horizon HX870 Floating VHF Radio- Best for Versatility (GPS, Navigation, Floating)
There is a point in time when you have to concentrate not on the cost of the device, but on what it brings to the table. The Standard Horizon HX870 is a great example of this scenario and it has plenty going for it.
The HX870 is a marine dedicated handheld radio with an easy-to-operate menu system that gives all users including the non-tech savvy mariners an easy time.
Focusing mainly on offering an intuitive and efficient tool, Standard Horizon gives this model a 2.3’’ LED-backlit display (biggest screen so far) with large characters for optimum visibility and easy reading even in bright sunlight.
Well, our previous models also offer backlit displays? So, what makes this model unique?
First off, the DSC Calling function that the Standard Horizon HX870 adds to the mix is one feature that we’ve not seen so far.
Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is a monumental technology in marine technology that makes calling for help and being rescued while in distress far much quicker.
Simply by pressing a designated ‘distress’ button (usually red in color) on the radio, this technology sends automatic mayday signals to the closest Coast Guard station and to DSC enabled radios on nearby vessels.
Thanks to the onboard GPS function, the lightning-speed distress signal also includes vessel location thereby making the rescue mission more efficient.
That’s not all though.
As I have just hinted, this radio has a built-in 66-channel WAAS GPS. The key benefit here is that you don’t have to bring a map along or purchase a standalone global positioning system. This is a great deal if you are using a borrowed boat or kayak without this feature.
To eliminate the risk of getting lost in the vast water body, the HX870 has a Group Monitoring feature that locates up to 9 vessels near you. On the same note, this radio has a built-in navigation system and a huge memory that can store 200 waypoints to help you find your way around.
To make it even better, the HX870 has a water-activated MOB (Man Overboard) feature that memorizes the exact location and time when it was dropped in the water, for instance, if you fell off the vessel.
Have I told you that this VHF radio is not only IPX8 waterproof but it can also float in water?
About transmissions, this unit offers a 6w output. It has a rechargeable battery that can last you all day long (without using the GPS) and it can also take 5 AAA batteries when there’s no way to recharge the Li-ion battery.
Uniden MHS75 Handheld 5W VHF Radio- Best For Compact Design
The Uniden MHS75 might suffice if you are looking for a compact size VHF marine radio for your sea trips.
This is a powerful 5-watt marine radio from a manufacturer with over 5 decade’s worth of experience in two-way radio technology.
The MHS75 boasts JIS8 waterproof rating which is a guarantee that it will hold up quite well even when submerged 5 feet in water for 30 minutes.
Of course, it’s very unlikely that you’ll want to put it to this test. But it’s great to know that the radio has enough protection against accidental spillages and drops in water.
But what we love most about the MHS75 is its dual, triple, and quad operations. This feature allows you to monitor 2 Coast Guard channels and a pre-selected weather channel while still listening in to your selected channel.
Importantly, this radio comes already pre-programmed with all NOAA weather channels to keep you alert to and up-to-date with any weather changes, warnings, and emergency messages.
The Uniden MHS75 has a maximum transmit power of 5 watts. The good news, however, is that you can switch this to 1w or 2.5w depending on your nearness to the shores. This helps in saving power thereby allowing you more time on air.
The biggest issue that most of its buyers report is that it does not ship with a wall charger adapter. It only comes with a cigarette charger which might be very inconvenient for most people.
How to Buy the Best Handheld VHF Marine Radio
Do you need a handheld or fixed radio?
Of course, the fact that you are reading this article means that you are looking for a handheld marine radio. But do know that the choice between a handheld and a mounted system depends on the size of your vessel and how you far you’ll be fairing into the sea.
A handheld unit will suffice if you have a small boat or kayak. Needless to mention, the key advantage of these models is their high portability that means that you can use them both in the vessel and on land.
Worth noting, these radios’ output is limited to about 6 watts. Again, they cover a radius of approximately 6 miles on good weather and on a straight line of sight.
As you can probably imagine, these units won’t allow you to venture so deep offshore.
On the other hand, a fixed VHF marine radio is a slightly complex and powerful rig. The best mounted boat radios max out the legal output limit at 25 watts and, therefore, keeps you connected up to 20 miles into the deep sea.
Most of them also have high-end features such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that protects you from colliding with other huge, fast-moving sea vessels.
But do know that fixed radios require more power and an antenna and are relatively super expensive.
Type of Battery and Battery Life
Handheld Marine radios’ battery technology has changed a lot in the recent past. Most of the recent releases are now fitted with Lithium-ion batteries.
This is a type of battery that we highly recommend to radio operators for a couple of reasons. First, a Li-Ion battery has a high energy density that keeps the radio powered for long while still consuming more power.
Secondly, these batteries have a much lower self-discharge rate. Even better, they have low to zero maintenance requirements.
But do know that different batteries behave differently. All in all, the longer the battery lasts the better for you. In addition, consider a battery that does not take so long to charge fully. The best models take 2-3 hours to suck in enough juice.
It also pays to go for a radio that accommodates non-rechargeable batteries (AAA and AA). These will come in handy when you there’s no way to give the rechargeables some life.
Waterproof or Splash-resistant
Most handheld VHF marine radios are splash resistant. This means that they can withstand light showers and mere spillages.
However, it’s always important to invest in a high-end model that isn’t just splashproof, but also waterproof.
In fact, since we are talking about being in the sea, a radio that can be submerged in the water without losing its integrity makes a more reliable option for the worst SHTF situations.
You never know when a storm will come knocking. And neither do you know when you’ll need to exercise your swimming skills several miles off the shores, right?
Cheap VHF Marine Radios are rated ‘splash resistant’ and might not survive when dropped into the water.
On the other hand, the best models including our top pick here, the Standard Horizon HX870 are not only waterproof and submersible, but they can also float.
There are 2 major ways of rating radios’ waterproof capabilities depending on the manufacturer- IP (Ingression Protection) and JIS (Japan Industrial Standard).
Without getting so technical, the best models should have a rating of IPX7/IPX8 or JIS8. An IPX7 or JIS8 rated two-way radio means that it can be submerged 1 meter in the water for up to 30 minutes.
IPX8 and JIS8 models have even better waterproof and water resistance performance and will withstand X meters for Y minutes as stated by the manufacturer.
I can’t stress enough the need of going for a radio that keeps you posted on weather changes while in the sea.
Radios that are connected to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration channel will alert you to adverse weather changes like storms so you can take the necessary precautionary measures.
You may also want to consider a radio that receives Specific Area Messaging Code (SAME) as a warning for severe weather.
Dual or Tri watch display
CH 16 (156.8 MHz) is dedicated to sea bound vessels and it’s purposely designated for making distress and safety calls.
According to radio watchkeeping regulations, you should keep monitoring this channel to ensure that you don’t miss out on any critical information that might save your life.
On the same note, you may also want to maintain a continuous watch on other channels, for instance, the VHF Channel 13 that is designated for boat-to-boat Navigational Safety or CH 12 that is used by ports.
Most marine two way radios have dual watch button (labeled DW or D/W) that allows you to monitor the working channel plus Channel 16 alternately. Advanced models make it possible to watch up to 3 channels at the same time and are the most recommendable although not so necessary.
Dual and Tri-watch radios disable this function in case one of the channels receives a transmission.
Speaking of dual and tri-watch displays, you also want to go with a backlit screen and keys. The benefits here are obvious: bright backlighting makes it easy to read even in bright conditions and it also lowers power consumption.
Is the radio DSC Compliant?
DSC is an acronym for Digital Selective Calling and a part of the Global Marine Distress Safety System (GMDSS). Think of it as an identification number that allows you to connect to your buddy who has a DSC-enabled radio directly rather than hailing on Channel 16.
Another giant advantage that a DSC-compliant marine radio offers is improved emergency call whether you are contacting another boat or ship or the coastguard.
The radio sends a distress message with your MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number and coordinates to ensure urgency in rescuing you.
DSC-enabled radios have a distinctive red button labeled ‘Distress.’ Note that you’ll need to register for your unique MMSI number to enable this function. Registration services are offered by BoatUS MMSI registration and USCG Rescue 21.
This is yet another great feature that you don’t want to go without. If your boat does not have a built-in Global Positioning System, a handheld VHF radio with this capability makes a great alternative.
GPS broadcasts your position in the sea thereby making it easy for rescuers to locate you and make the quickest possible response during an emergency.
In addition to its reliability in life-or-death situations, a GPS tracker allows you to locate important service providers either in the sea or on land including police stations, hospitals, and filling stations.
Noise Cancelling Capabilities
Believe me. As a boater, you don’t want a radio that can’t combat background noise, especially from the wind and engine while transmitting. In that case, consider the technology that the radio uses to curb this.
Most radios have squelch control. This is a noise-canceling technology that lets in strong signals and bars background noise.
Depending on how you set it, the SQL control makes weak signals audible by canceling or lowering the level of background noise.
Burping is yet another technology that several radio manufacturers utilize to ensure clear conversations and transmissions.
Waterproof handheld VHF radios are bound to lose their audio quality in case water gets inside the speaker. This makes it sound distorted since water limits the movement of the membrane.
The burp function uses a series of sounds to push the water out of the speaker thereby making the audios clear.
Different manufacturers use different terms to refer to this function. For instance, Aquakequake is a trademarked term for ICOM radios.
VOX – Voice Activated Transmission
This feature adds yet another degree of convenience by allowing you to use your radio hands-free. A handheld radio with this function keeps the microphone active and will automatically turn on and transmit the second you start talking.
Unfortunately, since a VOX radio is sound activated, it might be turned on by engine noise with ease. The good news is that these radios also have a Push To Talk/Transmit (PTT) button to switch from transmission mode to reception mode manually.
It’s with no doubts that a VHF marine radio is among the most important safety tools that you need to have onboard as a seafarer.
Whether what you have in mind is a 20-dollar unit or top-of-the-line model costing several hundred bucks, what’s important is the assurance that you’ll be able to call for help any time you need it.
A VHF marine radio is all about your safety, and the model that offers it at your budget should be your go-to radio.
Asked for the rock of the best handheld VHF Marine radios, my pick would definitely be the Standard Horizon HX870.
Sure, this radio costs a pretty penny but it’s also extremely high spec. Among other features that make it a lifeline include its Class D DSC function and built-in GPS that allows you to send a distress call with your exact location for urgent rescue.
The Waypoint Navigation and Group Monitoring features, on the other hand, minimize the chances of getting lost in the sea.