It used to be easy. Slap in a couple of King KX155 navcomm radios and you’re good to go for VFR, IFR and everything in between. These days, the buying decision is muddied by WAAS GPS, the concerns of signal outages and whether a ground-based nav receiver makes sense for a backup.
But there is still a need for standalone comm radios, and the good news is we found some good performers that have generous feature sets at reasonable prices. But installation issues can quickly drain limited budgets, and for the best performance you need to go all in. In this article we’ll offer buying tips as we scan the VHF transceiver market.
Before venturing on any VHF radio upgrade, take stock of the existing antenna systems on the aircraft. If you’re upgrading from a single comm radio to two, you’ll need a second antenna system. If you’re replacing an older radio, it also may be a good time to replace the coaxial antenna cable. A single antenna system could add as much as $500 or more to the project, especially if the interior has to be removed to gain access. In general, belly-mounted comm antennas are easier to install because the headliner won’t have to be removed as is often the case with top-mounted antennas.
Consider antenna position, too. If it’s on the bottom, you’ll likely get better performance from the radio in flight, but degraded performance on the ground, especially when tucked between hangars. And how do you know if antennas need to be replaced? Consider how well your old radio worked.
A new radio won’t always fix the reception problems you’ve been having. If it’s a Fiberglas antenna, how does it look? These antennas are generally treated with an antistatic coating to battle precipitation-static (P-static) interference issues. If the Fiberglas layer is wearing off, it was time to replace it a long time ago. Have the shop take a look.
Since most transceivers can be wired for intercom operation, you might not need an audio panel (all have integrated intercom), but when adding a second radio, an audio panel takes care of the audio isolation and transmitter selection. The days of installing two radios with external transmit relays—even for basic panels—are long gone.
Garmin’s standalone comm transceiver is the GTR 200 series, which includes the TSO-certified GTR 225 and GTR 225B (Bluetooth) models. It’s up to your installer to figure out if your aircraft requires the TSO version. LSAs—both legacy and newer ones—don’t require TSO’d gear. And while Garmin doesn’t advertise it (and markets the non-TSO’d GTR 200 and Bluetooth-equipped GTR 200B to the LSA and experimental market), we’ve heard of plenty of installers who retrofit the PMA’d version of Garmin’s GTR 200 into certified aircraft, with appropriate signoffs. This PMA version is intended for installations in Garmin’s G3X Touch integrated avionics suite, but it can work as a standalone, too. Again, talk to your installer about the legalities.
The GTR radio (they’re all based on the same platform) transmits 10 watts of power (a 16-watt version is available) and measures 1.35 inches tall by 6.25 inches wide. The radio makes use of a simple 37-pin connector, which stretches the chassis 9.3 inches deep. The entire system weighs just shy of two pounds, including mounting rack and connector hardware. It has an LCD display with a 200 by 33 pixel count, which is relatively utilitarian. The viewing area is small, too—at 2.95 by 0.48 inches. Still, it has a wide 45-degree side viewing angle. The ones we’ve flown with do well in sun-splashed cabins.
We like that the GTR radios have Garmin’s 3D audio. This unique audio processing creates the illusion that each audio source is coming from a unique location or seat position. Of course, you’ll need stereo headsets for the separation to work. It’s worth it. During normal operation and with 3D Audio enabled, the listener hears the active frequency at the 12 o’clock position. If the standby is selected for monitoring, the listener hears the active at 11 o’clock and the standby at the 1 o’clock position. Intercom positions (the radio has a two-place VOX ICS) are processed to sound like their relative seat location.
If music on the fly is your goal, the Bluetooth version of the GTR is what you want. You can even tweak the audio sound signatures to suit your music. From the softkey menu, you have access to an impressive wireless entertainment interface that’s driven by a Bluetooth smartphone or tablet. The way it ought to be, accessing your tunes on the fly is fast and straightforward. Hit the MED (for media) key for access to the connected smartphone’s Bluetooth media controls.
When connected to Garmin’s panel-mounted navigators (including the GNS 430W/530W units) for positional data, the database-equipped GTR radios can automatically fetch and load an airport’s frequency, while displaying the airport or appropriate ATC facility name on the radio’s display. Plus, you can monitor the reception on the standby frequency—it’s almost like having another radio.
Pricing for Garmin’s radios is all over the board. The base non-TSO GTR 200 is $1199 and the flagship GTR 225B is $4095. Contact www.garmin.com.
Got a tight panel? Becker USA is long known for building gear with space-saving and rugged hardware, good performance and low current draw, and it’s been the choice of many OEMs that need avionics that fit in tight panels. The latest transceiver line is the 6200 series, with several models separated by their mounting design—remote, rack and instrument hole mount.
For self-contained stack mounting, the 6.3-inch (which is the industry-standard rack width) radio is the $1300 AR-6203. It uses 2.4 inches of vertical space and 8.83 inches of depth behind the panel. It weighs just shy of 2 pounds and has a 6-watt transmitter in 14-volt installations and 10 watts in 28-volt installations. Since most kits are 14 volts, the 6-watt—and 14-volt—version is the most popular.
The rack-mounted 6203 has a reasonable amount of modern features, including a four-place VOX-controlled intercom with dual-stick (or yoke) push-to-talk capability, auxiliary audio input and the ability to interface with a second control head, which is the $778 RCU6201. This is useful in tandem cockpits, with the main unit and remote head connecting via serial data. There’s also a 99-channel memory bank with user-defined text labels assignable for each frequency, and the unit automatically stores the nine most recently selected frequencies. A Scan mode monitors the audio of the standby frequency.
The version for mounting in a 2 ¼-inch instrument cutout is the $1300 (6-watt version) AR-6201. It weighs 1.5 pounds and has a mounting depth of 9.0 inches. Like the rack-mounted 6203, the 6201 can also drive the RCU control head for tandem-cockpit installs. And if you don’t have the 9.0 inches of panel depth to work with, Becker sells the $1408 RT-6201. It measures 2.4 by 2.4 by 7.4 inches and weighs 1.32 pounds. Mate it with the RCU6201 control head, which mounts in a 2 ¼-inch instrument cutout and requires a shallow 1.55 inches of depth.
Becker USA’s Ralph Schneider told us German-based Becker Avionics is starting to assemble select radios in its Miramar, Florida, facility, which has resulted in some price reductions across the product line. We applaud the change, and have found that support and customer service have even improved. Contact www.becker-avionics.com.
Another manufacturer that puts a sharp focus on saving panel space is Scotland-based Trig Avionics, offering the Compact and Stack lines of VHF radios. The radio-stack-mounted models are the $1865 TY96A (10-watt transmitter) and $3048 TY97A (16-watt transmitter—which only works in 28-volt electrical systems). The radios stand 1.3 inches tall in a standard 6.3-inch-wide radio stack, require 10.63 inches of panel depth and weigh 2.09 pounds. No forced air cooling is required, says Trig.
The “A” suffix Trig radios have basic 25 kHz channeling (the straight TY97 and 96 have both 25 kHz and 8.33 kHz channeling). All models come standard with a two-place stereo intercom and aux input for entertainment and warning systems.
The Trig radios can integrate with compatible GPS navigators using the Garmin SL-40 and GTR 225 data protocol to automatically display frequencies along a route, based on GPS position. As noted earlier, this is a serial data connection between the radio and the navigator.
The Trig radios also have a dedicated Mon bezel key for monitoring the audio of the standby frequency (something Trig calls Dual Watch), an Emer key for quick tuning the 121.500 emergency frequency and a Play button for playing back 30 seconds of the previous receiver audio. Trig calls this the “Say Again” feature, and it’s a welcomed addition to an already generously equipped radio.
For instance, the rig comes with a USB memory stick for building a customizable frequency database for loading (up to 200 channels and their associated facility names) into the radio as CSV files. The USB port is on the lower left front of the radio’s bezel, and there’s a dedicated Mem key for accessing the frequencies.
The remote versions are the $1110 6-watt TY91 (for 14-volt electrical systems) and $2943 16-watt TY92 (for 28-volt systems). The remote transceiver has most of the features of the rack-mounted version including two-place stereo intercom, Dual Watch and a nine-frequency memory bank.
You’ll have to find someplace to mount the transceiver, which shouldn’t be a big deal—it measures 1.88 by 2.59 by 6.29 inches. That’s reasonably compact. The control head for channeling it measures 1.73 by 2.48 by 1.37 inches, fitting a 2 ¼-inch instrument cutout.
Trig offers prefab wiring harnesses for the TY91 and TY92. Each harness includes connections for the radio and control head, and the company offers both long (118 inches) and short (39 inches) harnesses. The D-Sub connector-equipped shielded harnesses come with mic and phone audio jacks attached, and the installer provides the circuit breaker or fuse protection.
Worth noting is that PS Engineering uses the Trig remote radio as part of its PAR200 audio panel/VHF radio combination. The ones we’ve installed and used have been good performers. Contact www.trig-avionics.com and www.ps-engineering.com.
The current Icom transceiver is the A220 TSO (for certified applications—there’s a non-TSO for LSA and experimental aircraft). What we like about the A220 is its display and smart receiver. It’s actually a well-rounded radio, equipped with an 8-watt transmitter, a bright OLED bezel display and a two-place intercom, plus it comes standard with both 8.33 and 25 kHz frequency channeling.
There’s plenty of frequency storage capability, with 20 regular channels, 50 group channels, 10 GPS database-sourced frequencies (a healthy variety of RS-232-based navigators will work for sending in nearby facility frequencies automatically), and 10 NOAA Weather channels.
The A220 measures 1.34 by 6.3 by 10.67 inches and weighs a touch over 2.0 pounds. In addition to having a display with a wide viewing angle (it’s nearly 180 degrees, offering more mounting flexibility), the A220 has smart features including Icom’s ANL (automatic noise limiter), which helps to reduce noise in the receiver. For the ham-fisted among us, there’s a dial and key lock to keep from inadvertently hitting the radio’s controls in turbulence. There’s a dedicated emergency key for 121.500 and a Dual Watch mode (and dedicated bezel key) for monitoring the standby frequency.
Icom offers adapters for plug-and-play with some older radios, including King, and the unit is wired with a D-Sub 25-pin connector. We’ve installed and used the A220 in a few applications and have been impressed with its performance and rugged control set. The company has enjoyed sizable success in the land mobile market, producing quality radios that are generously equipped as standard, and has been a staple in the aviation handheld transceiver market for years. Visit www.icomamerica.com
NO FRILLS: VAL, TKM
But that doesn’t mean these low-cost rigs are bad choices, and you might be able to save some time and money on the installation.
The $1285 VAL Avionics Com 2000 is plug-compatible with Garmin’s old SL-40 comm and measures 1.0 by 6.0 by 9.0 inches and weighs 3.25 pounds. It has an 8-watt transmitter, 15-frequency memory bank (with user-defined characters) and an RS-232 serial port with Garmin SL-40 emulation for fetching frequencies in the active flight plan from a compatible navigator or EFIS. Contact www.valavionics.com.
The $949, 8-watt Val Com 2KR is for EFIS interfacing over its RS-232 serial bus. Weighing 2.0 pounds, the remote transceiver measures 8.75 by 0.86 by 5.9 inches. It has a speaker output and two aux audio inputs. This can be for engine monitors, landing gear warning systems or other attention-getting alerts.
TKM Avionics has been manufacturing the $1828 MX11 radio for years, and it started as a direct plug-in replacement for the Narco Com 11/111/120-series radios. It has an 8-watt transceiver and measures 1.75 by 6.2 x 9.87 inches, weighing 3.0 pounds. It’s a no-frills if not dated radio with an LED display and front panel-accessible potentiometers for setting the squelch threshold and display brightness. It can store up to 10 frequencies. Contact www.tkmavionics.com.
WRAP IT UP
Our advice is to work closely with your installer to find the right comm transceiver for your panel, and the decision process will be based partly on panel (and radio rack) space.
If ground-based VHF navigation (VOR, localizer and glideslope) are your requirement, the choice for traditional navcomm radios is limited to Garmin’s GNC 255. We say get a price quote for Garmin’s latest GPS/comm—the GNC 355—and do some hard thinking about losing VHF nav.
For rack-mounted rigs, we favor Garmin’s GTR 200B and Trig’s TY96. For space savers, the Trig TY91/92 and Becker 6201 are favorites.