If youve got a nice portable GPS as an emergency get-me-down, do you really need a handheld VHF radio, too? We think having one in your flightbag is cheap insurance against the inevitable what ifs that go hand-in-hand with flying airplanes, not to mention being a good clearance-getter and utility ground communicator.
The good news is that competition in this market is fierce and since we last examined these products, there have been a few changes. Our previous favorite was the newcomer, Yaesus VXA-100. We admired the small size and featureset, compared to the similar featured but bigger, Icom.
Icom responded with an excellent new product, probably more an effort to get that disposable dollar than reaction to our views about the last generation.
Over the years weve seen Icom become successful by improving on competitors designs and theyve followed this strategy to produce another winner.
There are a total of about a dozen handheld VHFs on the market but because some are simply variants of the same basic design repackaging for marketing-Icom has five models, for example-we have confined this round-up to four models. We purchased four popular units; Japan Radio Companys (JRC) JHP-520, Icoms IC-A23, Sportys JD-200, all navcomm units. In addition to these, we picked up one of the newest Yaesu units, the Aviator Pro II VXA-120, a comm radio only. Yaesu recently announced a new model, the VXA-200, but it wasnt available for testing. Since weve already visited with the VXA-100 in our January 1999 issue, weve confined our comments to the VXA-120.
These units are handheld aviation transceivers, of course. Three use rechargeable batteries, the Sportys JD-200 uses eight AA batteries as the standard power option. All communicate on the aviation frequencies, from 118.00 to 136.975 MHz but we noticed that the Sportys JD-200 could also receive above 137.00 MHz, although there isnt much of interest to listen to. The out-of -band capability seems more opportunity for frequency entry error than any in-flight benefit. The JRC, Icom and Yaesu receive NOAA weather frequencies, more useful than the JD-200s 140-something MHz. The same three units have a mayday button, which will tune the radio to 121.50 MHz.
The Sportys JD-200 is available exclusively from the Sportys catalog. It used to be $395 but lately has been at a limited time sale price $295.
The other three units are widely available from Web and mail order sources. Prices are competitive in this market and we recommend finding the lowest one, since support comes from the factory anyway. Local FBOs and avionics shops probably wont stock these items. In order to be profitable, theyd have to charge more, and even at list price, if the avionics manager has to spend 15 minutes explaining how the thing hooks up to your cigarette lighter (excuse me, accessory outlet), he just lost money on the deal.
Our little Web shopping session found advertised prices to be somewhat variable. One buyer caveat: These units are available in standard, and lite (or Sport or Field) versions. The stripped-down units cost less, but lack the headset adapters and other niceties. Ask the dealer what you get for the price youre paying.
The weather radio function found on three (Yaesu, Icom, JRC) is great. Its not complete aviation weather, but the NOAA variety. Its still an excellent go/no-go first look check.
All of the receivers have a scan feature, which is handy for impressing your friends as you listen to clearance delivery, ground, tower, departure and center frequencies while sitting by the pool. In some areas, theres enough radio traffic to make this gadget really annoying to the people around you. Ah, but the A23, JHP-520 and VXA-120 can skip some channels, to declutter the audio to your ears.
The scan function flips through the stored memory channels, which is another popular feature found on all four sets. The available memory slots range from 200 in the Icom to 20 in the Sportys.
How many memory slots does a person need? There are 100 in my cellphone and I only have five people I care to call. Twenty would hold all the frequencies that any pilot would ever need to monitor.
One feature shared by all is the duplex communication mode. This allows you to transmit on the comm frequency, while listening on the VOR.
All of the units-except the JD-200-allow you to name your stored frequencies with alphanumeric characters. This makes it handy to label the ABQ TWR or TYS CLR. Its a little like speed dial, with the consequent risk of forgetting the actual frequency.
The JRC and Yaesu units have a monitor mode that lets you listen to a couple frequencies, like active and standby (JHP-520) or priority watch (VXA-120). In this mode, more than one channel is monitored, with a priority channel breaking in.
Three of these units (Icom, Yaesu and JRC) offer a panic button. This is a rapid access to the universal emergency frequency, 121.5 MHz. The Yaesu has a dedicated button but on the other two, its a secondary function, requiring two keystrokes. On the Sportys unit, which lacks the panic button, it would take all of six keystrokes to achieve the same result.
The Icom has a truly unique feature: A record function that will store the incoming signals. You hit a button and it records the next 20 seconds of radio signals. It ignores squelched signals, so you only get real transmissions. Interestingly enough, you can also re-transmit these recorded signals. Center, you may think you said left turn, but you really said right turn…and heres what you actually said!
The thing to remember is that all of these units have so many features that they can be complicated to use. These gizmos will entertain your hangar mates, but in flight, youre interested in flying, listening and talking, in that order.
All of these radios have LCD (liquid crystal display) readouts. If you see pictures of the Yaesu units, they appear to be blood red. Actually, they have a reddish backlighting, all the others have green. The clearest display of all was the Icom A23. It has larger numbers, on a larger background. Its numbers are 1/4-inch tall, twice as tall as the JRC unit.
The JD-200 also has a good display. While the other units have a segmented display, the Sportys model has a dot matrix, with the frequency display -inch tall. However, its viewing angle was limited; sometimes we had to twist the display to get a clear view of the numbers.
Although small, the JRC was clear and had good contrast, important qualities for those of us with matured eyesight.
In this contest, the Yaesu lost, but only because it has a slightly thinner font than JRC. Its numbers are 3/16-inch tall.
The Yaesu has a unique angle on the display, which makes it more visible when standing up on a table. Mount this fellow on a control yoke, however, and it might be hard to see. However, the Yaesu does have one clever display trick. You can flip it over, top to bottom so the display will read properly when clipped to your belt; perfect for looking cool at airshows.
Backlighting is an important feature. Sure, handheld transceivers are great fun to have around the house, for that aviation ambiance, but the reason you bought the thing is as back-up to your real comms. At least thats what you tell your spouse when you write the check for $400.
So as a back-up, the time to use one is in a dark cockpit, with rain pelting the windshield and ice building on the wings, thus there are important aspects to the backlighting.
How hard is it to turn on? All four units have a light switch thats easy to get to, once you know where it is. The JD-200 is most obvious, a large round button, different shape and well apart from the push to talk button, on the side.
The JRC JHP-520 lighting control is one of three buttons set apart on the front panel. Its at the top and also glows slightly when you hit the PTT button, a good idea.
The Icom and Yaesu buttons are also near the PTT, and smaller for easy identification. The Yaesu has two such buttons, a squelch test and the light button. The light button is smooth, so you can tell by touch which one to use in the dark.
But heres where we got an unpleasant surprise. After successfully locating the right button, we found that only the display lights up, not the keypad. Fortunately, the Yaesu has a rotating knob available for frequency selection, but if you wanted to dial in 124.500 and you were on 134.700, youll be twisting the night away.
Worth noting is that all of the units have second functions, like emergency frequency access and NOAA weather, on their buttons. However, none of these are lit, so youre going to rely on your memory or a failing map light to access the features that made you buy this gadget in the first place.When you switch on the lights, you increase power draw and therefore shorten battery life. So how logically a unit handles the backlight demand is an indication, in our opinion, of how aviator-friendly the transceiver is.
The Icom A23 will leave the lights on for you indefinitely. Thats good when you need them, but bad if you leave them on in the daytime. On the JD-200, the lights are on for 5.7 seconds if you press and release the button. If you hesitate, the lights go out. However, if you press and hold the button for a couple seconds (until it beeps), the lights will stay on indefinitely.
The JHP-520 keeps the lights on until about six seconds after the last press. Thats plenty of time to make a few mistakes and try again. After that, you have to hit the lamp button again.
The Yaesu is configurable. It can be set to always switch on the lamp when youre button poking and will re-illuminate the display. Or it can be switched on and off, like Icom, or strictly time based, like Sportys. Too bad it doesnt light the keypad.
Buttons and Knobs
Controls on these guys can be described in one word: Tiny. It doesnt matter which unit you buy, youre going to be peering at the legends and trying hard to push just one button.
The award for biggest buttons goes to Sportys JD-200. The radio itself is slightly larger than the others and so are the buttons, which are rectangular and widely spaced, making it the easiest to poke at in choppy air.
The next runner up is the JHP-520. Yes, its buttons are the smallest of the bunch. But they stick out farthest, have a distinctive feel and positive travel. Next comes the Icom IC-A23. Contrarily, its buttons are flush with the front. If you cant have a distinctive and positive feel, protection from inadvertent activation is preferable.
Yaesus buttons are small, dark, and poorly labeled. Handsome, yes. User-friendly, not really. Certainly were splitting hairs, because none are easy for folks with fat phalanges to fiddle with.
The JRC and Sportys products have conventional knob layout. Theres nothing wrong with convention, in our opinion. No surprises or frustration. Theres a volume control and a squelch control knob. Turn one to switch on and make the thing louder, turn the other to shut off the white noise. End of story.The other units are more complicated. The Icom only has one knob, but its so multi-talented, youre never sure exactly what its going to do.
This single knob is used to change frequency, select memory banks and channels, select weather channels, control the volume and squelch. It shares functions with the push button arrow keys. The Icom can actually be operated without opposable thumbs, a claim that no other unit can make. The knob doesnt even turn the unit on. That can be confusing, but only at first. Theres a green on/off button on the front, like a cellphone.
The Yaesu has two knobs up top. One is a conventional volume and on/off control. The other acts like the Icom, for channel selection, but has a push-button function that changes modes on the unit. It seems like a lot to ask of a knob, but in this case, its logical and intuitive. Each push of the knob will change the channeling mode, from random tuning (or VFO), to the book section or preprogrammed channels, to the memory section of user frequencies, to the weather channels.
This knob also works to change or modify the modes and functions. You push the F button on the keypad, and then turn the knob to select the mode to be modified. Its a user-friendly way to control the backlighting mode, squelch, beep tones and so on.
Testing these radios on the bench, we were impressed with the sensitivity of all four receivers. We set the squelch for the minimum value that would quiet the receiver, and then applied a standard test signal (30 percent modulation, 1000 Hz). We found them all to be sensitive to signals of less than 0.5 microvolt. The received signals would be weak and noisy, but readable. The next receiver test was the maximum squelch. This tests the system to see how much signal would be required to break squelch if its turned up to block all but the very strongest signals.
Three of the units would require 5 or 6 microvolts to open the squelch, which is high enough to block noise, but will still allow most legitimate radio transmissions.
Here the JHP-520 showed a minor flaw. The maximum squelch setting was 1 microvolt, just slightly higher than the minimum squelch setting.
What this means to the end user is that there may be occasions where you wont be able to squelch out some ambient noise, say magnetos and other electrical activity in the airplane. Still, in our opinion, each of these units has a good receiver.
Like the receiver performance, the transmitters of these little guys are also an even match. Instead of the peak envelope power, which in our opinion is just marketing hype, we measured the raw carrier power, the steady-state RF delivered to the antenna, with a fully-charged battery.
We found that the smallest and most expensive unit, Icoms A23, had the most transmit power. It could crank out nearly a full watt across the comm band. The wimpiest unit was the Sportys JD-200. Even with a brand new set of the finest batteries, it was less than 0.7 of a watt.
Okay, you ask, will I notice a difference in the useful range between the powerful Icom and the weakest link? Probably not.
In order to effectively double the range of the JD-200, youd need nearly 3 watts of RF power, which would exclude all but panel-mounted radios.
So, use the results of this test to demonstrate the fact that Icom is able to wring more power and more efficiency from each stored electron than any of the others. This is a clue to the quality of the product.
Battery Options, Accessories
Three of the radios came with rechargeable batteries, although they were of different voltage and capacity, we found it amusing that they all lasted about eight hours, giving low-battery warnings within a few minutes of each other. This was on a typical duty cycle of listening to four frequencies around a busy airport.
Like modern cellphones, the batteries are efficient, but we didnt have the units long enough to find any memory effect, or see how long these units would last in daily charge-discharge cycles. The VXA-120 comes with a nifty charger stand, the others are a simple plug-in power cord.
Sportys radio is supplied standard with an alkaline pack, with rechargeables as an option.
The Yaesu uses a different type of antenna connector, called SMA, which seems to be short for small. You find these in really tiny applications, like inside electronics of various sorts. In order to hook the VXA-120 to a conventional aviation antenna, youll need to buy a SMA to BNC adapter, for about $10. Not a big deal unless you dont plan for it and try to hook up your handheld radio to an auxiliary comm antenna and…surprise.
Of all the radios, we thought the Sportys came out on the bottom as far as supplied accessories go. But its also the cheapest. The Icom, Yaesu and JRC are shipped with headset adapters, something thats critical for in-cockpit use. You have to buy that separately with the Sportys radio.
The award for best in show and for the best performance and feature set belongs to the most expensive unit, the Icom IC- A23. Its small, but packed with features and easy to use for the most part. But you pay for these features.
Our favorite overall is the Yaesu VXA-120. Its shortcomings are the lack of a VOR/localizer function-which isnt really much of a shortcoming, frankly-and the absence of keypad backlighting, which is.
The JRC JHP-520 has some excellent features and the active/standby monitor function is a great idea. The display is compact but has good contrast and loads of information. Were concerned about the overly sensitive squelch, but during our operational field trials, it didnt cause any problems. Its bigger than the top two units and more expensive than some. We wouldnt hate to own it but its not the best value.
The weakest link, Sportys JD-200, is blessedly inexpensive. Compared to the Yaesu, it has VOR and localizer. Its also dead simple to use. As sold, it uses alkalines so its ideal for the flightbag last-resort model. Alkaline batteries are less likely to weaken over time when theyre not used.
So, in order of cost/benefit, we recommend the Yaesu VXA-120 because its small, cheap and capable, the Icom A23 because its got loads of cool stuff-but is spendy.
Next, the Sportys JD 200 as a back-up knock-about unit and finally the JRC, because it costs a bit more and is bigger than the others.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Is the VOR Option Worth It? No.”
Click here to view “Checklist.”
Click here to view “VHF Portables Compared.”
Click here to view “Top Two.”
Click here to view “Bottom Two.”
Contacts- ICOM America, Inc., 2380-116th Ave NE, Bellevue, WA 98004; 425-454-8155; www.icomamerica.com. Yaesu/Vertex Standard, 17210 Edwards Rd., Cerritos, CA 90703; 562-404-2700; www.yaesu.com. Sportys Pilot Shop, Clermont County Airport, Batavia, OH 45103; 800-543-8633; www.sportys.com. Japan Radio Co., www.jrc.co.jp/index-e.html.
-by Gary Picou
Gary Picou is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. He works for PS Engineering, a maker of intercoms and audio panels.