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Best portable cb radios 2018 – [Buyer’s Guide]Last Updated May 1, 2023
My name is Arnold Simmons. Here are the best portable cb radios for 2018 – based on my own expert opinion, feature sets, prices, and overall popularity.
Eventually, I found something that would suit my needs but it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one who might be having the same problems I did. Now I’m going to recommend a few portable cb radios you can pick from to get started quickly and easily.
Let’s get to it!
Best portable cb radios of 2018
I must say I am quite a fan of portable cb radios, so when the question “What are the best portable cb radios available on the market?” came to my mind, I excitedly started gathering information together with personal experience to write this article in the hope that it may help you find the suitable portable cb radios. I make the search easier for you, by reviewing the best portable cb radios on the market.
Come with me. Customers need to be careful on how they spend their money on these products.
Test Results and Ratings
|Ease of use||
How to save up to 86%? Here is little trick.
You must visit the page of sales. Here is the link. If you don’t care about which brand is better, then you can choose the portable cb radios by the price and buy from the one who will offer the greatest discount.
№1 – Midland 75-822 40 Channel CB-Way Radio
Why did this portable cb radios win the first place?
I don’t know anything about other models from this brand, but I am fully satisfied with this product. I was completely satisfied with the price. Its counterparts in this price range are way worse. The product is very strong. Its material is stable and doesn’t crack. I really enjoy the design. It is compact, comfortable and reliable. And it looks amazing!
№2 – C Crane CC Skywave AM
Why did this portable cb radios come in second place?
The material is pretty strong and easy to wash if needed. I like this product. For such a low price, I didn’t even hope it to be any better. It’s decently made. Managers explained me all the details about the product range, price, and delivery. The design quality is top notch and the color is nice.
№3 – Midland 75-822 40 Channel CB-Way Radio
Why did this portable cb radios take third place?
It is inconvenient to use due to the size. I am going to get something different next time. A very convenient model. It is affordable and made of high-quality materials. I liked the design. We’ve been using it for 2 months and it still looks like brand new. It doesn’t squeaks nor bents. Looks great in my apartment.
portable cb radios Buyer’s Guide
How CB Radios work
CB radios operate using radio waves, just like VHF radios, cell phones, televisions, and AM/FM radios. Each CB radio is equipped with a long antenna, generally around feet. If you use your CB radio in your vehicle, the antenna will probably be mounted on the back of the vehicle. The antenna captures the signals and transforms them into audio which you hear through the speakers.
A CB radio is a transceiver, which means that it is both a transmitter and a receiver. If you want to send out a communication, simply key into the microphone and talk. The words are converted into electrical signals and then are transmitted by the antenna. They travel through the air on radio waves which are picked up by other CB radios.
History of CB Radios
As mentioned previously, the FCC invented CB Radio in 194with the goal of giving individuals and small businesses a reliable two-way means of communication that wasn’t too hard to learn. CB radio reached a height of popularity during the 60s and 70s. The advent of solid-state technology allowed costs to drop precipitously.
When the 197oil crisis caused the US government to impose a nationwide speed limit of 5mph, CB radio really took off. It allowed drivers to warn one another about police cars and gas stations which were out of fuel. Over time, CB radio clubs formed and invented special jargon for on-the-road communications.
In a way, CB radio was a precursor to the anonymous chat rooms of the internet. Of course, with the growth of the internet and FRS radio, CB radio usage has declined.
Mobile vs. Handheld CB Radios
While there is such a thing as a base CB radio which you install at home, most users want CB radio for the road. There are two main types: mobile and handheld.
Mobile CB radios are relatively compact, though not as small as handheld models (see below). You can mount one directly under the dashboard of your vehicle or install it on the transmission hump. Want to reduce static from the spark plugs? Wire the radio to the battery directly.
This is the most compact option for a CB radio. As the name indicates, you can hold the model in your hand and talk, or you can set it on your dash. Handheld models are not as powerful as mobile or base units, but they do offer the best portability.
Power and Range
The FCC sets power limitations for all types of radio communication. The maximum power allowed for CB radios is four watts. There is an exception—SSB radios, which transmit on 1watts (we will delve into this in the features below). Most CB radios are limited to a maximum transmission range of around miles. Note that this is the range you get with a clear, unobstructed path between two radios. Anything that interferes with line of sight can interfere with transmission and reception.
Built-in SWR Meter
SWR stands for “standing wave ratio.” If your CB radio is equipped with a built-in SWR meter, you can measure how effectively the power signal your device is emanating is moving through the antenna. You can use the SWR meter to properly adjust your radio or maximum effectiveness.
This knob is yet another feature for reducing static. It is also known as a “clarifier control.” As you adjust it, you will notice that the pitch of the person’s voice on the other end changes. Delta tune is handy if the other person sounds “squeaky,” and you want to reduce that effect so you can make out what they are saying more clearly.
All Cobra products sport a distinctive look. The
Cobra 2LX is no exception. If you’re looking for a stylish CB radio that’s especially designed for CB radio users who like to keep track of weather alerts the Cobra 2is worth a hard look.
Switches to alert mode when there’s a storm coming. If stormclouds are gathering on the horizon, you’ll be the first to know.
Sleek design. The Cobra 2LX is the most attractive CB radio we’ve seen so far.
PA capability. A built-in PA jack allows you to make announcements as you drive if you buy a loudspeaker.
Diagnostic mode. This CB radio constantly monitors your antenna connection and alerts you of any pressing voltage issues.
Four display options. You can switch between four different colors.
Versatile. It performs well anywhere you take it.
Batteries last a long time. You can get to hours of use out of a single charge.
You can hook it up to an external antenna. Hooking up your car’s CB radio extends the 75-822’s range.
Low price. This radio costs much less than most CB radios that are built to be used in an automobile.
Accesses NOAA weather alert channels. If foul weather approaches, the 75-82fires off a short emergency tone.
This radio will not survive an encounter with pavement. The shell is made out of cheap plastic.
Portable, 6AAA batteries, 40 channel coverage, NOAA weather alerts.
Handheld, 1000 channel memory, battery powered, Dual bandwidth, Weather/information alters, Alphanumeric display.
This handheld has a dual bandwidth. With an impressive 1000 channel memory, there are constant weather, information, and hazard alerts. The handheld can quickly transmit 144-14MHz and 430-470 MHz and receive 108-520 MHz and 700-999.9Mhz. Portable and easy to use: The radio is handheld and can be carried and used to scan channels easily. There is no need to it to be attached to a direct power source when using. Can be used when hiking or on the move because of the size and electricity supply.
Uniden BEARCAT 880 Bearcat CB Radio
Uniden is a highly respected brand in the world of CB radios and one of their most advanced models worth looking at is the Bearcat 880 which comes with many powerful features. Besides the clear reception, the generous range, and its excellent transmissions, this radio also has a very large and colorful display for easier reading of any relevant info.
There are so many features packed in this device that the higher price seems fully justified. The CB radio offers 40 channel operation and a noise canceling microphone which manages to efficiently eliminate the background noise. Uniden added an extra long mic cord and provides dynamic squelch control. Perhaps one of the most attractive features would be the Sideband mode (SSB) that’s rarely found on lower-end CB radios.
Enjoying a crisp connection is possible and for even more freedom the radio can be paired with a wireless microphone. Some other notable features of the Bearcat 880 are the CB/PA switch, instant channel 9/19, radio diagnostics, and a 6-PIN mic adapter.
Thanks to its NOAA weather channel access, with this CB radio you’re also able to get updates whenever weather conditions are changing. It can automatically transmit alerts about the severe weather. A public address feature is also present as well as the option for making the emergency channel automatically available if you so choose.
Something that experimented users will definitely appreciate is the colorful display that offers a high level of visibility thanks to its seven-color backlight. Reading and adjusting the settings of the Bearcat is a breeze and you will be able to better focus on your driving. A nice bonus is the dimmer switch that’s extremely helpful at night to lower the intensity of the display to a more comfortable level.
Uniden appears to be quite customer-oriented considering their very comprehensive user manual which will explain in detail all the features of the CB radio. Another thing worth mentioning is the inclusion of an adapter cable in the package which helps for connecting microphones from other brands. The only slight complaint about this radio is the relatively big size.
Uniden’s Bearcat 880 is a great buy in all regards and if you put its multitude of features in balance with the price it’s really not difficult to see that this represents an excellent investment. If you are a big fan of these devices, the Bearcat 880 CB radio will successfully cover all of your needs.
Desktop Charger: I sound picky, but having a well designed charger is quite essential. The very very cheap ones charge at low power continuously 24/The better ones know when to shut off the charging circuitry. The more advanced models allow your units to be on while charging.
The cost of the CB radio
If you want to communicate with other effectively, then CB radio is the best choice. First and foremost, you should consider the price of the CB radio. Mostly, the price range is varying from one brand to another. So, it is very tough to find the best one.
The size of the CB radio
The second important factor is the size of the CB radio. The size is completely based on your purposes which mean if you want to implement the CB radio for your cars, buy the small size of the CB radio.
However, the people those who want to implement the CB radio in the trucks they should buy the large size of the CB radio.
Some of the CB radios come with the internal speakers so you may get the low range of sounds in high traffic. In case, if you want to get the high quality of the sounds, then purchase the external speakers. It is the best choice.
When it comes to the weight of this CB radio is quite low. So, you can implement it any of your vehicles which means you can install it in your cars or trucks anywhere you want.
However, it provides the noise blanker option. With the help of this blanker option, it can reduce the noise from the sounds.
The battery power of the CB radio
This CB radio analyzes the weather condition 2hours in a day so it will send the weather report in the case of emergency. It requires the external power to delivers the high-quality sounds so you can power on this device using the AA batteries.
Effective emergency alert
If you want to get the emergency alert of using the CB radio, then this is the exact product for you. This CB radio uses the national weather channels so it has the ability to provides the alert sounds to you while the weather conditions are in danger in your area.
Furthermore, it does not only provide the alert tone in critical weather conditions but also you can set the alarm or time to remember some special things.
Awesome weather scans
This Midland Mobile CB radio totally uses the 40 channels to communicate. It is specially designed to send the weather report effectively so it has the ability to scan the weather in 2hours completely and send the immediate report to you about the weather in your area.
Sometimes, you will get the weak signal due to some harmful disaster. At that time, you can’t able to hear the voice from other clearly. For that, this system provides the noise limiter. With the help of the noise limiter, the system reduces the unwanted background noise and delivers the high-quality of clear sounds to you.
It is made using the weightless types of the plastics so the overall weight of this system is just pound only. So, it is easy for transportable.
Galaxy DX-959B Mobile CB Radio
This Galaxy DX-959B Mobile CB Radio comes with more demand in the market why because it is user-friendly. Besides, you can change the operation of the device easily in critical situations also.
Each and every button in the system comes with the separate functions so it will not confuse you to operate it. Moreover, it comes with the traditional design so you can use it for your home purposes also.
Blue attractive display
Generally, this CB radio comes with the blue and red color display so it is easy to view both days as well as nighttime. It provides the digits large LCD display screen which means you can you can view the frequency counter reading in digits and channel reading in digits.
Furthermore, it uses the GNF which mean galaxy noise filter. With the help of this filter, the system decreases the noise level and delivers the quite clear voice to communicate.
Motorcycle CB Radio
As we said in Part I, CBs’ history in the market, installed base, and simplicity are the reasons they continue to sell as the preferred BTB communication option from manufacturers. If you have a touring model or a bagger from one of the major manufacturers, chances are it has been designed to accept a CB. You can either order it pre-installed on your new bike from the factory (in the case of BMW, Harley, Honda and Kawasaki) or have it added later as an accessory. Since this type of installation is unique for each bike and is of a proprietary design, you’ll pay more, but the existing bike controls and/or integrated AM/FM radio will likely work in an well-behaved manner with the CB. Since the CB unit is usually mounted deep in the bowels of the bike, and often requires the addition of electrical filters, headphone jacks and other such electrical system refinements, installation is usually best left to the pros at your local dealer.
If your ride was never designed to accept an OEM CB unit (as is the case with many cruisers) you’ll have to go with an aftermarket supplier. But don’t despair; these solutions perform just as well. J&M; Audio makes a nice CB unit that mounts on the left handlebar, allowing use of a push-to-talk trigger and other controls while riding—just like the OEM setups. All the electronics are housed in the handlebar-mounted control unit so there’s nothing to squirrel away in the caverns of your bike. Model JMCB-2003B-DU provides a 40-channel CB radio, NOAA weather band radio, rider/passenger intercom and stereo music amplification from any portable music device, all integrated into a compact unit.
The industrious Swedes, who have given us dynamite, the adjustable spanner wrench and the PC mouse, have most recently given us Bluetooth. As we pointed out in Part I, Bluetooth was originally meant for short distance wire and cable replacement. Several vendors, such as J&M; Audio and Chatterbox, also build Bluetooth devices primarily for short range cable replacement. Bluetooth is also often integrated with other BTB communication technology to facilitate communication to devices like GPS units, digital audio players and phones. However, in this dedicated Bluetooth section, we’re talking about products that use Bluetooth technology primarily for longer range two-way radio communication in place of a GMRS/FRS or CB radio. Sena Technologies and Cardo Systems are just two of the manufacturers that have augmented the basic Bluetooth capabilities to allow for longer range BTB communications, and they also offer high quality products in this class. Both are helmet-mounted units, and both can link up with a multitude of other devices, such as your GPS for voice navigation, audio players for music, or a passenger’s unit for intercom capability. Both units claim 12–1hours of usage between charges and take 2–hours to fully recharge.
The ham radio frequencies you are permitted to use depend on which of the licenses above you have under your belt. Not all radios work with all frequencies, so make sure that you buy one which will offer you the frequencies you want to access.
Most handheld radios are limited to around five watts of power; you may find higher-powered options if you choose a base model. If you purchase a handheld, make sure it has high- and low-power settings you can manually adjust as per your needs.
For emergency communications, you will generally be using the two-meter ham band. The 440 MHz band is another that you will likely make plenty of use of. There are a couple of band-related features you may want to consider. One is dual band, which allows you to monitor two frequencies at the same time. Another is general coverage. This feature allows you not only to use ham radio bands, but also pick up AM, FM, and TV frequencies. Advanced features for bands include SSB and CW (Morse code).
If you will be using your ham radio at nighttime or in dim environments, you may want to purchase a model that includes a backlit display. Remember, emergencies sometimes happen in the dead of night. If the power goes out, you may be stuck operating in the dark. You should have the option to toggle the display light on and off so that you can conserve power when you do not need it.
This is the ability to manually program the CB radio. Most models allow you to do this using a keypad and the CB radio display. Some newer high-tech models include a cable you can hook up to a computer. This gives you access to programming software which makes it a lot easier to input what you want.
Usually when you purchase a new product, the quality of the user’s manual isn’t the top thing on your mind. But with ham radio, it is actually very important. Ham radio does have a learning curve, and if you are a beginner, you will need as much guidance as you can get.
Even if you are a ham radio veteran, you may still sometimes hit a button by mistake and find yourself in a mode you do not want to be in. Rather than having to experiment to get the radio back into the mode you want, it is helpful to be able to flip to a user manual which will tell you quickly and easily how to get back to regular operation.
Extra tough. With its rugged polycarbonate resin shell, the Yaesu VX-8DR is built to survive major disasters.
Survives water submersion. This ham radio can last for up to 30 minutes when submerged in meter of water.
Optional GPS. If you get the optional GPS antenna addon, you can broadcast your exact location, altitiude and speed.
Environmental sensors. This ham radio’s built-in sensors can monitor barometric pressure and temperature.
Wide frequency range. In addition to standard short-wave frequencies, this ham radio also picks up FM/AM broadcasts, analog TV stations, audio aircraft and public service channels.
Compass display. The integrated compass shows you what direction you’re headed on the LED display.
TYT MD-380: Excellent Quality Speakers by TYT shines when it comes to audio performance. Voices come in extra clear through its high quality speakers. Its microphones perform well too, and its built-in wind reduction system kicks in when you use this device outside. For even greater clarity, switch you can switch to digital mode.
Awesome audio quality. The audio quality that you get with the TYT MD-380 is quite impressive.
Color display. Most handheld ham radios have a monochrome screen, but this one boasts a full color LCD display.
Choose digital or analog mode. The TYT MD-380 makes it easy to switch between digital and analog operation.
Good menu system. This portable radio’s menus are easy to navigate and use.
Water resistant. Because it can survive rain, you can take the TYT MD-380 with you when you go camping.
Sends text messages. When in digital mode, you can communicate via text.
Comes with accessories. In addition to the TYT MD-380 itself, you also get a battery, a belt clip, a desktop charger, a programming cable and two different antennas.
Delphi MyFi XM2Go
If this convinces you that the time has come to receive extraterrestrial communications, what do you choose (assuming the tinfoil hat fails)? To find the answer, we scoured our reviews for the best aftermarket receivers, and found three we rewarded with high marks.
Alright, you just got your amateur radio license and you’re itching to get on the air. But first you need a radio. What type should you get? As a volunteer examiner, I’ve been asked this question scores of times. It’s a common question of the new ham, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. But hopefully in this video will shed some light on what’s available and help you make a good purchase decision.
But what makes a handheld so convenient, is also their biggest downside. You are limited in transmit power, batteries quickly discharge, and rubber duck antennas are lackluster.
So it’s no easy choice between the two. Maybe the answer is, what do you want to get out of amateur radio? Are you on the road a lot? Are you looking to get involved with emergency communications? Do you want to make friends over the air? And most importantly, what’s your budget. These questions will lead you into what radio choices are best for starting out.
Budget is a big consideration, you may not have a lot of money to spend, or in just getting started with the hobby, you may not want to make a big initial investment only to later regret it.
So in that spirit, I’m going to lay out a roadmap to building your amateur radio station. Prices are approximate and nothing I say is an endorsement of a particular brand. This is just a guideline to help you build your own station.
This setup will work nice, you’ll hit all the area repeaters and be able to talk simplex with your local friends. But using a handheld as a base radio is cumbersome. The battery doesn’t last for long, and they tend to overheat if you use them for long periods of time.
But what matters is to get on the air, make some contacts, meet new people, and most importantly- have fun. The amount of money you spend is immaterial. So with that, invest into the amateur radio hobby the amount you feel comfortable with.
Why you should use a handheld GPS
What’s the point of using a handheld GPS? Why is it so acclaimed and popular among hunters? We’ve discovered at least four activities that can be performed better and safer as long as you’re using a handheld GPS. Let’s look at each of them.
Tramping and hunting
If you want to get a GPS for hunting, you’ll have the pleasant surprise of realizing that several models have been specially designed for this task. Tramping and hunting units are lightweight and small enough and features a good enough battery life. Non-mapping models are more affordable compared to the ones that have street maps. In addition, some units come with GPS collars that can be utilized with dogs. These are extremely helpful when it comes to localizing your companion and furry hunting assistant.
Although there is a high chance of not finding the absolute perfect model, buyers nowadays can select the characteristics that best suit their needs and requirements. It’s extremely important to assess your expectations before buying a certain unit, as this way you won’t make the mistake of choosing the wrong one. Geocaching might be another task you might be tempted to use your device for. However, virtually any type of outdoor GPS unit is capable of geocaching, so it might be worth noting that this detail should not be a deal-breaker.
Other buyers seem to prefer getting a GPS for street driving and 4WD. Unlike the handheld variants, the models that can be used in a car are somewhat heftier and have larger dimensions. The main drawback of choosing one of these is that you’ll be able to use it strictly in your vehicle or at least somewhere with a roof over your head. The vast majority of these units are not waterproof and are therefore suitable only for urban navigation.
Another task that can be performed with the help of a GPS system is biking. The traditional handheld model won’t be much help in this case, as the GPS has to be installed by using the handle-bar mount. As long as it has the right size, virtually any type of outdoor unit might be the right one for biking. The main thing to keep in mind when shopping for a GPS for biking is that the device has to be able to withstand a high amount of vibration.
Most of the models we have come across use the 2satellites owned by the United States Department of Defense. This means that a handheld model is capable of using the formerly mentioned satellites to provide details regarding the area you’re transiting. Some of the units on the market today have a better satellite reception than others, and a number of these manage to 3D lock the position of the user in a timely fashion.
Believe it or not, the larger the antenna of the unit, the faster it will be able to lock your position. The accuracy of the displayed image and the user’s position depends on the number of satellites that are present in the same area.
Even though there’re a plethora of online sources you can use to determine the speed of the model you want to buy, we recommend going to a store near you and testing some models. For example, if you’re interested in purchasing a new handheld GPS but find it hard to make up your mind between two models, ask the opinion of a seller or consultant.
At a store, you can take two units and place them one next to the other. Then, simply search for your location and figure out which one’s the fastest. Use the buttons to type the location and estimate the speed of the processor by understanding just how long it takes for the device to interpret your message.
Speed might also refer to how much time it takes for a model to startup.
Aside from social media integration, it might be a good idea to check whether the platform is intuitive and works with several devices. From what we have seen, there’s a limited number of GPS software that works with the Mac OS X. If this is a requirement, you might need to start browsing for a Garmin unit, as BaseCamp, its branded platform, is Mac compatible.
In addition, it might be worth considering that checking whether the GPS you intend to purchase is compatible with open-source mapping software is the right way to go about things. There’s a myriad of free platforms you can use to update your maps with new and improved data.
Number of maps
Some models are just more convenient than others, in that they come with a higher number of maps. Others, on the other hand, can be used solely in the United States and Canada. Just remember, updating the maps is very important, regardless of whether you want to buy the maps from the manufacturer or not. If you don’t use a trail in the woods for several years and forget to update your device, you might be in for a nasty surprise.
The only downfall of using free maps is that you’ll need to learn your way around them. On this account, they might be less comfortable to use compared to the ones provided by the manufacturer. It boils down to whether you’re prepared to pay for the maps or not.
Some of the standard accessories of a handheld GPS are rechargeable batteries, carrying cases, USB cables, and mounts. A mounting system does wonders when it comes to using the unit for anything other aside from hunting. Therefore, you might be able to use it in your vehicle.
A USB cable might not be the norm for some users, as most smart electronic devices come with a USB cable nowadays. Thus, you’re likely to have one around the house.
Rechargeable batteries are amazing if your budget allows it and if they’re offered in the same package. Needless to say, the end-price of the model has a say in terms of the number of accessories you’ll be receiving along with the device.
A good camping radio can ensure an enjoyable and safe camping experience.
Power requirements are probably the most important factor for any camping or emergency radio.
However if you are buying a radio for the outdoors, you will be silly not to look for a unit with additional power source capabilities.
AC-adapter/Car charger: There are very few camping radios that do not have a built in AC charger port. Although your campsite might not have power, a car charger or solar panel will keep the music or weather report alive.
Solar power: Camping and emergency radios are very efficient on power and if you have a built-in solar panel your radio will be charged for continuous use. We have found that having a radio with a built-in solar panel is one of our musts in buying a unit. Not having to consider battery supplies or conservative usage of the radio is a major factor for us.
As you can imagine cranking the night away to listen to music is not ever going to work and will only be for emergency situations.
Once all the basics are covered you can pick some additional features if you want. Remember, the more features, the more power it will use, so only pick the features you think you are going to use. A common add-on is a built in flashlight, but extra functions can be from programmable stations to 2-way radio capability.
If you have a double-DIN slot, you can still use a single-DIN radio, but a single-DIN slot cannot accept a double-DIN upgrade.
One of the first questions you’ll likely encounter when you consider upgrading your car audio system is whether you even can. If your car is older than, say, years (the approximate point when manufacturers began adding command screens that controlled multiple systems, not just audio) or contains a fairly straightforward audio setup, you’re probably okay—the only question is whether your car has a single-DIN or double-DIN design. Those terms refer to the measurements of the “hole” your car stereo sits in. A single-DIN slot measures 2⅛ inches high by 7⅛ inches wide. A double-DIN mount is twice as tall; most cars with LCD screens are double-DIN. If you have a double-DIN slot, you can still use a single-DIN radio (an adapter kit that you purchase for your specific vehicle simply creates open storage in the unused space), but a single-DIN slot cannot accept a double-DIN upgrade.
Another factor that will determine your ability to upgrade is whether other vehicle functions are integrated into your car’s audio system. For example, LCD screens that also include climate controls and the settings for other systems can’t be incorporated into a replacement stereo. But even if that isn’t the case in your vehicle, your car may have a complex, nonstandard dash setup that precludes such upgrades.
Some cars—the Ford Taurus of the late 1990s comes to mind—have oddly shaped panels around the stereo systems, or they use contoured surfaces that dispense with the “box cutout” configuration that persisted for decades. Carmakers do this kind of thing for design and functionality reasons, to increase button sizes and smooth out the dash appearance. In both cases, however, you might find adapters that will allow you to replace the unit even if the factory setup has funky dashwork going on.
Other vehicles, including my wife’s mid-2000s Mercedes, may be able to accommodate an upgraded unit, but they might require custom work on the dash to make it look right, something that’s beyond the scope of traditional plastic dash adapters. That’s the kind of job only a pro can do, and it will require extra time and money.
The process can be frustrating, but you can usually get a sense of what your car can or cannot accept by going to a good car-audio site such as Crutchfield and seeing what the online selection tool says about your vehicle’s upgradability. In addition, the better sellers usually offer installation instructions custom-made for your specific vehicle when you order the receiver, and will include any necessary parts and adapters to make the piece fit.
If you find that your car can’t deal with an upgrade, you have other options, such as Bluetooth kits that will allow you to stream music and place calls through a device that either plugs into your stereo’s aux-in jack or transmits to the stereo via an FM tuner. (For more details on the various pros and cons of these setups, check out our full guide to the best Bluetooth kits.) The trouble with kits, however, is the addition of still more cables and electronics to your car—stuff that can easily snag and tangle as you and your passenger come and go. Also, FM-tuner quality tends to be abysmal. A kit is cheaper, but if you can afford to upgrade the whole stereo, you’ll be rewarded with superior sound quality and ease of use.
If you already have a Bluetooth-capable stereo, you might still consider upgrading. Some older Bluetooth stereos, or those in less-expensive cars, might only accept phone calls and not support music. And the latest systems may have some inviting features—dedicated music apps, voice control, an adjustable display, or dual-phone capability—that didn’t come with your original car-audio system. Beyond that, you’ll also get a more modern, streamlined interface without the functional clutter of previous-generation head units.
Features to consider
As you shop for a replacement car stereo, you’ll have to decide which features are most important to you. And one of the first questions you’ll have to ask is whether you really need a CD player. In our survey of more than 400 Wirecutter readers, the vast majority of respondents—more than 80 percent—said they didn’t. That’s why digital media receivers, which come without a CD player, are the latest trend in replacement car stereos. The absence of a CD player often means a lower price, more user-friendly controls, a smaller chassis (which makes the unit easier to install), and fewer mechanical parts (which means fewer components that can break later on). Even so, car-stereo manufacturers say that a lot of buyers still want the option of playing a CD, so you have a lot of CD-capable receivers from which to choose.
One advantage of not having a CD player is that the receiver can be much smaller—about half the size of a normal stereo—which makes installation easier. Such a device also fits in older cars made before CD players became popular.
A feature we think is worth considering is Siri Eyes Free, which, when paired with an iPhone, boosts your safety and convenience on the road by offering voice control of your receiver. A lot of models include SiriusXM satellite radio and/or HD Radio capability, though we think those services are less important if you typically stream your music. Speaking of streaming, you’ll want to check for Pandora and Spotify support, which lets you control those apps directly from the receiver. And of course, you’ll want easy pairing of your smartphone, which is something most manufacturers are starting to master, plus a USB-input option to charge your phone or ease the integration of a guest’s device. Unfortunately, the popular Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems, which provide much of the functionality of a compatible iPhone or Android phone with a more driver-friendly interface, aren’t available in single-DIN stereos because they need a larger display.
Some models come with a handheld remote. That may sound silly—a handheld remote for a device that’s inches from you—but on a long drive it’s more comfortable to flip tracks with your hand in your lap than to be constantly reaching for the head unit. (You can also hand over control to rear-seat passengers, if you dare.) Smartphone apps that control the receiver as a handheld remote does are increasingly available, too—though the results vary widely. Some are barely functional while others, like the Pioneer ARC app, are nearly seamless facsimiles of conventional smartphone music controls.
Relatively minor but handy features you’ll encounter include tunable colors, which let you coordinate your stereo with the lighting in your car’s interior, and multi-line LCD screens that provide more data.
How we tested
Instead of installing each of the units on our short list into an actual car, I bench-tested them head to head at my residence. Bench-testing them allowed us to experiment longer and more thoroughly with each product. After hooking each receiver up to a 12-volt power source and a set of moderate-quality speakers, I put it through its paces. We focused on Bluetooth functionality, not audio quality, since so much of that is dependent on the number and quality of speakers in your vehicle. While many readers in our survey indicated that they’d consider upgrading to better speakers at the same time they upgraded the head unit, that wouldn’t have affected our results, as great speakers will indeed sound better across the board. If you’re an audiophile, you can find plenty of options for expandable systems, which we’ll describe briefly later on.
Our bench-test setup, consisting of two speakers and a 1V power source.
I tried the test receivers with both iOS devices and Android phones, simulated hundreds of vehicle entries and exits to gauge Bluetooth reacquisition behaviors and speeds, placed and received calls to see how well the Bluetooth hands-free communication worked, and, of course, streamed music via Bluetooth and USB cables. I learned what sort of control each receiver permitted over music selection from the head unit itself versus the connected device, and I also hooked up multiple phones to see how easy it was to switch between devices.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
We don’t have much to complain about with the Pioneer MVH-X390BT. The primary LCD screen is only one line, which limits you to one category of information (track name, station, artist, and so on), but it scrolls smoothly and legibly for longer titles.
You can’t tune the display color to match the rest of your dash (it’s white), and the buttons are backlit in blue. This color scheme may make the unit less of a natural fit with your car’s dashboard, but it doesn’t affect overall functionality. While other units, such as the Sony MEX-N5000BT, automatically dim when your headlights come on, the MVH-X390BT’s display can be dimmed only manually, or programmed to dim at specific times of day. And the handheld remote control has no button to activate Siri Eyes Free; you have to reach for the multifunction knob on the head unit.
Hardcore car-audio geeks won’t be into this unit due to its limited options for expandability (in terms of extra speakers and subwoofers). But that is an exceptionally minor complaint, since most buyers won’t be interested in expanding beyond their car’s existing core capabilities.
Typically a little higher in price, this model is basically the same unit as our top pick, with SiriusXM compatibility and a few extra features.
If our top pick isn’t available, or if you want to be able to play satellite radio, the Pioneer MVH-S501BS is another great choice. This is a newer version of the MVH-X580BS and MVH-X560BT, which were our previous alternative picks, and typically it costs a bit more than our main pick. It has a similar interface and all the features of our top pick, along with SiriusXM compatibility, tunable display colors to match your interior, and a second line of display text, so you can see both the track title and the artist name simultaneously. Because we think those features are more minor ones (more than 80 percent of the readers who responded to our survey said they didn’t want satellite radio, for example), we’d rather get the MVH-X390BT and save some money.
If you want to expand your system
We think most people would prefer the simpler interface and superior Bluetooth capabilities of our top pick. Also, Kenwood’s handheld remote isn’t ideal: The buttons are too small and too close to one another for most people to use easily while driving, and for some reason it has a numeric keypad, which takes up a lot of space and is only occasionally useful.
The Sony MEX-N5100BT has a built-in CD player and supports near-field communication (NFC), which lets you pair a compatible phone with your receiver just by holding it up to the head unit and selecting the pair function in the menu. It has an app remote that lets you not only control the music but also adjust the audio settings; I’m not a fan of app remotes, however, and I find them of limited utility. This Sony unit currently costs about the same as our top pick, the Pioneer MVH-X390BT, but we preferred our Pioneer pick overall because of its lack of a CD player, its inclusion of Siri Eyes Free support, and its thoughtful elimination of unused sources from the menu.
If you do want a CD player—or at least don’t mind having one—you open up the door even further for more options. We considered many units from the key manufacturers but found most of them to be overloaded and generally too complex for people who want simple and streamlined operation.
The affordable Alpine CDE-143BT has good Bluetooth support but lacks Siri Eyes Free.
The Alpine CDE-SXM145BT adds SiriusXM radio but is too pricey.
The JVC KD-X240BT is an exceptionally affordable unit that’s extremely spartan and lacks the usability features and advanced smartphone connectivity of the Pioneers.
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One of my favorite things to do is talk with other ham radio operators through satellites or the International Space Station (ISS). To do this, I stand on a rooftop and tune a handheld multiband radio while tracing the orbit of a satellite or the ISS with my homemade yagi antenna.
Orbiting satellites such as AO-51, SO-50, and AO-2act as repeaters, relaying signals from low-power transceivers like mine back to hams elsewhere on the planet. So if you know where to aim the antenna, you can communicate around the world via space. The ISS also has a repeater, and occasionally, when we’re lucky, the astronauts themselves exchange transmissions to communicate with hams on the ground.
If you do have a ham radio license and a UHF/VHF transceiver, you can upgrade this antenna with VHF elements so that it can both send and receive transmissions.
A yagi antenna has three types of elements, consisting of metal rods of varying lengths and quantities. The driven element is a dipole antenna that’s connected to the radio and receives the signal, just like a whip antenna. The reflector is positioned behind the driven element, where it acts as a mirror by bouncing signals from the satellite forward to the driven element. Directors are one or more rods that act like a lens, focusing the incoming signal onto the driven element. Both the reflector and the directors improve reception from whatever direction the antenna points.
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First of all thanks for reading my article to the end! I hope you find my reviews listed here useful and that it allows you to make a proper comparison of what is best to fit your needs and budget. Don’t be afraid to try more than one product if your first pick doesn’t do the trick.
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Questions? Leave a comment below!
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