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Is it possible to get better range?  Do more expensive 'professional' grade units provide better performance?

We repeated our testing, this time using professional grade radios and antennas.

The difference in performance was startling.

 
 
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Real World Ranges for CB, FRS, GMRS and MURS Radios

Testing Results Part Two :  Professional Grade Radios
 

A 'professional' grade radio often looks similar or identical to the consumer grade ones, but can cost up to ten times as much money.

Are they worth the considerable extra cost?

Part 4 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five

 

 

Consumer grade radios have very limited range, no matter what their manufacturers might claim to the contrary, and there is unlikely to be much difference between radios optimistically claiming '5 mile range' and those claiming '7 mile range' - neither are likely to even reach a mile in normal urban conditions.

Professional grade radios generally offer more power, the option of adding an external antenna, and better transmitter and receiver circuitry.

In this part of the series, we compare professional grade radios with consumer units to see what type of extra range you can expect.

Testing Protocol

A friend kindly came around, and brought with him two Vertex VX-400 two-way radios, plus various different antennas.

The Vertex unit has 5W of transmitting power, a high quality receiver circuit, and can be used with external antennas.

He sat on my deck, with one of the two Vertex radios, plus one of my Midland G225 radios.  He had three different antennas - the short stubby antenna that came with the radio as standard, an alternate short 1/4 wave antenna, a longer 1/2 wave antenna, and a 'Tiger Tail' clip on modifier.

I drove around the same route as before, with a second Midland G225 (low quality consumer grade radio), a Midland G11 (mid-grade radio), and the other Vertex.  I had the standard antennas for the G11 and Vertex, plus two external roof mount antennas - one being an inexpensive generic roof mount antenna from Midland, and the other being a high quality, ~ $100 5/8 wave B4503 antenna from Antenex.  Both external antennas claimed +3db of gain.

Results & Analysis

The importance of a good receiver

At 0.3 miles, when talking from a G225 to the other G225, the signal quality was assessed at 2 (on a 5 point scale), but when talking to a Vertex, the signal quality improved to 4.

The largest factor in the improvement of signal was due to the better receiver circuitry in the Vertex, which has a good sensitivity rating of 0.25 uV.

At 0.5 miles, the quality between the two G225s was almost zero, and it wasn't practical to talk on them.  Using a Vertex to receive improved the quality up to 2, and using a Vertex unit both to transmit and receive increased the quality up to 4.

The importance of transmitting power

At 0.5 miles, calling from a 2W G225 to a Vertex resulted in a signal quality of 2.  Changing from the 2W G225 to the 5W Vertex saw the signal quality increase up to 4.

In general, using the Vertex as a transmitted seemed to increase the clarity of the signal that was received (on either radio) at the other end, but did not appreciably increase its transmission range.

The importance of a good antenna

At 1 mile, where the two G225s could not talk to each other, neither also could the two Vertex units talk to each other using their standard antennas.

But both the Midland G11 and the Vertex could communicate back to the other Vertex when using an external antenna.

There seemed little difference in performance between the Antenex antenna and my cheaper Midland generic antenna.

The external antenna made a major impact both on the strength of transmitted signals and received signals.

Maximum overland Range

We managed to get 1.3 miles between the Vertex with Antenex external antenna and a Midland G225, in a suburban environment.

Over Water Range

We next changed location.  I drove to a waterside location on Mercer Island, and Dan then drove across State Highway 520, from Redmond to Seattle.

When he was directly opposite me, across the water (range of between 3.2 - 3.6 miles) we could communicate clearly while Dan was using a Vertex and external antenna, and I was using my 2W G11 and internal antenna.

With Dan using his Vertex and external antenna, and me using my G11 and external antenna, we managed to communicate an incredible 6.15 miles, with 4.7 of those miles being over land and only 1.45 miles being over water.

This was a stunningly good result.  However, it was a 'one off' rather than a regular reliable event.  Depending on the relative elevation of where Dan was and where I was, as he drove from the point 6.15 miles away and then generally towards me, the quality of signal would vary and sometimes we would lose contact.

The Most Important Factor

Essentially, we were experimenting with three main variables :

  • Transmission power

  • Receiver sensitivity

  • Antenna

Extra transmission power did not have as much impact on performance and range capability as did the other two factors.  For example, at a 1 mile range, the 5W Vertex could not communicate with the other Vertex while using its standard antenna, but the 2W Midland G11 could communicate via an external antenna.

We would consider that a good antenna is the most important factor - and also the cheapest factor to improve.

A good receiver design is the second most important factor, and transmission power is the least important of the three.

A good antenna increases both the range which you can transmit to and receive from, whereas a good receiver only increases the range you can receive from, and a powerful transmitter only increases the range you can transmit to.

A 'good' antenna need not be large or complicated or expensive.  Because the type of antenna that can be found built in to a radio set is very inefficient, just switching to a better quality external antenna on the radio itself gives you an immediate boost in range, and going to a remotely located antenna (on the roof of your vehicle or house, for example) you can get still more benefits.

Professional quality radios allow for external antennas and have high quality receivers.  Consumer quality radios might have a similar power rating, but their very very inefficient fixed antenna and poor quality receiving circuit handicap them severely and make them much poorer in real world usage.

Summary - Should You Get an Expensive 'Professional' Radio

The answer to this question depends on how you're going to be using your radios, and what sort of reliable working range you need.

With consumer quality FRS and GMRS radios so incredibly inexpensive these days, perhaps your best strategy is to spend $50 to get a pair of consumer grade radios and see if you're happy with the quality and range you get from these units.

See also Parts 1, 2, 3 & 5

In Part 1 we explain the different types of personal radio services available to you, and what they variously mean.

In Part 2 we discuss how it is that manufacturers can claim ranges of 'up to seven miles' when the effective range - as tested by us - is sometimes as little as one twentieth the claimed range. Many factors influence maximum range - some we can influence, most we can not. In particular, read the startling truth about the importance of transmitter power to give you more range.

In Part 3 we give you real world test results of 'consumer grade' radios and help you choose which is the best system for your needs.

In Part 5 we explain the confusing mismatch of channel number allocations to different FRS/GMRS radios.
 

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Originally published 18 July 2003, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me (David Rowell - KF7VVM) as original writer.

 
 
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