If you have a boat and you sail the ocean, you need a VHF radio. That’s a given.
But handheld radios which I have covered in my other reviews have a bunch of disadvantages that originate from the very concept of a handheld radio. It’s good if you have it, but you probably need a fixed-mount radio instead if you have a large boat.
That said, choosing a VHF radio can be a pain, that is why I made a list of 5 best fixed-mount VHF radios. If you don’t like any of them for one reason or another, there are still hundreds of VHF radios available, and you can easily make a choice based on the Buyer’s Guide I made for your convenience.
Top 5 Best Fixed Mount VHF Radios in 2019
1Yaesu FT-857D — Most Advanced
This is an astounding ham radio. Unfortunately it is not made specifically for maritime use. So why is it on this list? The radio is very powerful and has a power output of 100W. You can talk across the globe using this radio, and it does overlap with the maritime mobile band.
- Powerful. 100W transmitter radio
- A wide range
- Super versatile. Being a ham radio first and everything else second, it’s not surprising.
- Not a dedicated maritime radio
- No low power transmit mode
2Standard Horizon GX1700W — Best with On-mic controls
Ham radios are good and powerful, but if you want something more suited for your purposes, you can try Standard Horizon. It is DSC-capable, and thanks to the built-in GPS receiver, it can generate a distress call with your geolocation data.
- Dual watch
- GPS. Enhances DSC and can be used for navigating to DSC distress calls
- Waterproof submersible
- Mic. It's a noise-canceling mic, and you can use on-mic controls to select channels, switch to distress channels, and toggle between high transmit power and low transmit power.
- The case is far from durable
3Uniden UM385BK — Cheapest VHF Radio
It doesn’t have a GPS module, but you can connect a GPS receiver or chart plotter to enable DSC calls with GPS data. You can also enter your coordinates manually, so if all you have is a phone with a GPS module, you can use its data.
All in all, it’s a decent maritime radio with a lot of memory for channels that you can use for communication, sending and receiving DSC calls and receiving NOAA weather alerts.
- Triple watch
- Sending and receiving DSC calls
- Dedicated maritime waterproof radio
- Receiving weather alerts
- Rugged mic
- Poor compatibility with some GPS receivers
4ICOM M330G — Best Overall
If you just want to grab the best radio and not think about what else you could use it for and how to match it against other units, say no more.
This GPS-capable radio is perfect for any boater and angler.
What’s interesting about this model is that it features a dedicated DSC-receiver. You can receive DSC calls any time without a need to tune in.
- Dual/triple watch
- GPS, GLONASS, and SBAS geolocation
- Dedicated DSC receiver
- Waterproof submersible
- Professionally designed
- No volume control. That's almost like the manufacturers decided to introduce a token drawback because the radio is too perfect otherwise.
5Cobra Electronics MR F57W — Best Bang for the Buck
Saving money is not a bad thing, and if you can save money on buying a VHF radio that is not really expensive and can still give you all the good features is even better.
You get everything you’d expect from a maritime radio, including DSC-logging. All in all, it’s an excellent radio for many anglers and boaters.
- Tri-watch. Channel 16, channel 9 and any other channel of your choice
- DSC logging
- Waterproof submersible
- Tight zippers
Fixed mount radios have several advantages over handhelds. The first is they can transmit or receive for as long as your boat’s battery is charged since they’re tied to it. Due to the high capacity of the boat’s battery and the fact it’s recharged by the alternator if gas-powered, there’s no real time limit to their use.
The second advantage is that they use an externally mounted antenna. Now, that antenna could be sort of right at eye level or maybe on a T-Top, or it could be at the top of the sailboat’s mast. Regardless of what it is, the antenna is higher than that of a handheld radio, and the range that a VHF can transmit is related to the height of the antenna. The higher the antenna, the further it can transmit. A fixed mount VHF radio with its greater power—typically, 25 watts—and higher antenna height might be able to communicate for 25 or 30 miles or, in some conditions, possibly as high as 60 miles. If it’s transmitting to another station that also has a tall antenna, you get sort of an additive effect, that allows for further communication distances.
So what features should you look for in a fixed mount VHF radio? Well since they’re regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, fixed mount VHF radios have a lot of features very similar to those of handheld VHFs.
There really isn’t any advantage of the transmit power of one radio over the other. Every FCC-compliant VHF radio will have a minimum transmit power of one watt, and a maximum transmit power of 25 watts.
A radio must have a power selector to switch between 1-watt transmission and 25-watt transmission. Most of the time, you have to use the low power mode. That extends the battery life and prevent you from interfering with other people communications.
All VHF radios have pretty much the same channels. It is the second thing that handhelds and fixed-mounts have in common.
They have three different channel bands: one for international use, one for Canadian use, and one for United States use. You’ll have an indicator on the front of the device that says U, I or C. That means that you would generally choose U for the United States. That gives you about 52 channels, but most of them are reserved for commercial or military use. You can listen to any of these channels. However, you don’t get to transmit on all of them if you are just a recreational boater or an angler, and you may face certain restrictions even on those channels where you can transmit. Channel 70, for instance, is reserved to DSC calls and voice communications are not allowed, while channel 16 is reserved for distress calls only. There are roughly 15 channels that you may use without getting a license or being part of the military.
Most of the best VHF stations will feature a push-to-talk microphone on a coil cord. But some microphones have additional buttons on them. They serve two main purposes: changing the transmit power and changing the channels. Switching between low-power and high-power transmission is handy, but I wouldn’t call it crucial or anything like that. Changing the channel, on the other hand, can be vital.
It doesn’t have to be the ability to change to any channel. If you can choose channel 16 on your mic, that’s good enough. This is really a good feature because it’s nice to be able to change from whatever channel you’re on to the emergency channel without actually having to grab the radio. It might be possible that you just can’t let go of the steering wheel, holding onto it with one hand, and all you can do is try to use the radio with the other hand. That is where your ability to switch channels one-handed makes all the difference between life and death.
Some radios will also offer a way to change the channel to any other channel, not just channel 16. Usually, you can do it by pressing either the “Up” button or the “Down” button to go up or down through the list of channels. Some feature a rotary knob. Is it less convenient? Well, some people prefer one over the other, and you might have a personal preference of your own, but there is no real difference.
Why would something like this deserve its own section in a Buyer’s Guide? For a good reason, folks.
Volume control seems such a primary feature that we wouldn’t give it a second thought. We would be right to do so, of course. All maritime radios have volume control. You can turn the radio on and off, that’s obvious. What is less obvious is squelch control.
Squelch control is a way of eliminating unnecessary noise. Instead of hearing static all the time, you can turn the squelch control, and the radio will remain silent until somebody initiates a transmission and tries to call you.
I’ve already covered DSC in my review on handheld VHF radios. But fixed mount radio is where DSC really shines.
The abbreviation “DSC” stands for “digital selective calling.” DSC utilizes channel 70, which is reserved for digital communications. Thanks to DSC, you can also send digital information about your boat and transmit data between vessels digitally. The digital nature of those transmissions reduces their length and allows them to reach farther since filtering out the noise is an easy task when it comes to digital communications.
Digital selective calling allows you to predefine a variety of messages. That said, you don’t have to worry about that too much. Most people never use DSC for all the different functions that it provides. However, there’s one thing DSC is good for, the same thing that makes DSC a must have for any fixed-mount maritime radio. It enables you to send an automated distress message, possibly with your latitude and longitude. For that, you need one of two things: either a built-in GPS receiver or data cable connecting the radio to such receiver.
Here’s how it works. First, you have to have an MMSI number, which allows you to identify by your vessel. That number allows the Coast Guard to look you up in their database and know exactly who you are when a DSC is sent. Second, it is best to have a GPS-receiver connected to your radio.
To use digital selective calling for sending a mayday signal, it has to be a true life-threatening emergency, not just something trivial. That is why you have to flip up a safety panel that prevents you from pushing the button accidentally. After that, you just push on the button, and it will transmit your MMSI number, your latitude and your longitude on channel 70 and then revert to channel 16 so that you can talk using voice to whoever responds to your digital signal.
The group that you probably want to listen to you the most is the United States Coast Guard unless you manage to get away from the shores of the united states far enough for other nations’ coast guards and rescue teams to pick up your signal. Anyways, back to the USCG.
The Coast Guard can triangulate your position even without geolocation data in your distress signal. Their new Rescue 21 system is a series of communication stations around the outside of the continental United States, major rivers and the Great Lakes. Rescue 21 allows the Coast Guard to triangulate on where you are by listening with multiple antennas. But still, I strongly advise that you have a GPS-capable radio or that you connect a standalone GPS-receiver to it. If you’ve got a DSC-equipped radio and you transmit your latitude and longitude, they will know exactly where you are without attempting to detect your approximate position and then search the area where you are likely to be found. If you need a helicopter to come and rescue you or possibly a patrol boat, they can send it directly to your position, and
you don’t even have to know how to use your GPS. It just has to be on and connected to your radio.
While sending mayday calls is the primary purpose of DSC, you don’t have to limit yourself to distress calls if you wish. You can do a whole lot of other things with it. As an example, you can request the position of your friend’s boat and have it transmitted to you, you can send your location to a single boat or to a multitude of boats and so forth. It’s surely convenient, but not many people will have a use for those types of usage, unlike the distress call.
There are some features you might want to look for as you choose your VHF radio. They are not required, strictly speaking, but they can be beneficial.
A loudhailer is a big speaker that you put on the exterior of your vessel and connect to the radio. You don’t need it on a small motorboat, a loudspeaker is a much better substitute in that case, but for any boat where you aren’t always in plain sight, a loudhailer is the best option. When you use it, the mic transmits your voice through the speaker instead of broadcasting it on the radio. If you’re coming into a dock and you want to have somebody help you with the lines, you can get on and ask for help not relying on other people having their radios on and tuned.
Remote Second Station
Many of these radios, especially the slightly higher priced ones, have the option of hooking up an external second station to it. You have full control of both of them, so you can change the channels, you can make a DSC call, you can change the volume and so forth. It only makes sense if you have a sailboat or a powerboat that has two helm stations. You can use the same radio in two different locations.
Some of VHF radios have a built-in AIS receiver and an AIS display. That allows you to see the position of any vessel equipped with an AIS transmitter operating in your vicinity. Those vessels transmit their names and information about their movements, speed, latitude, and longitude on VHF AIS dedicated channels. That information is received by the radio and displayed on a compact liquid-crystal display. Instead of having to buy a separate AIS receiver and an AIS display, you get them integrated into the radio at a great price.