If you're looking for the best radar detector at the under-$339 price point, that would be the Escort Passport 8500 X50. There's a slew of models in this market segment but after testing them all, the detector I've found to have the best balance of features and performance is the Escort Passport 8500 X50.
Once the range-topping Escort, the Passport 8500 X50 is now slotted into the midrange of the lineup. It lacks the GPS technology of its upmarket siblings, the Escort Passport Max or the Escort Passport 9500ix, but if you're not pestered by red light cameras and can tolerate a few more false alarms, this one will do the job admirably well.
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 replaced the Escort Passport 8500 model I christened "World's Best Radar Detector" when I first tested it some years back for Automobile magazine. Among Escort's non-GPS models, the Escort Passport 8500 X50 is one notch below the Escort Redline ($499).
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 is available with either a red or blue LED display. If you'd like nearly the same radar detector at a steep discount, try the BEL (Beltronics) Pro 300. It uses a different case but shares its M4 platform with the Escort Passport 8500 X50 and has the same performance. But it has some useful extra features, voice alerts chief among them. Now instead of having to scan the display or depend entirely on audio tones to identify threats, a pleasant voice announces the particulars instead. (Audio tones are an alternate menu option.) Unlike the Escort, the BEL Pro 300's audio can be adjusted remotely, using the coiled Smart Cord mute button, a feature particularly useful when the BEL is used on a motorcycle.
A Ph.D in electronics isn't required to operate the 8500 X50. A thumbwheel switch handles the power on/off function and regulates the volume of its audible alerts. A pair of multi-function buttons atop the case handles everything else except for manually-muting the audio. (Auto-muting is standard; after a short full-volume alert the Escort 8500 X50 automatically silences the audible alert to limit the annoyance factor.)
Signal strength (proximity to the radar) is indicated audibly by beep-frequency, visually by a bar graph that rises progressively as signal strength increases. The radar band—X, K or Ka—is spelled out in the text display, making it simple to comprehend what type of radar you're encountering. (In town, an X-band alert will almost certainly be a commercial automatic door opener, all of which operate on police-radar frequencies and account for half of all urban false alarms.)
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 is plug 'n play, but it has an array of user-selectable menu options that allow it to be fine-tuned to the driver's taste. For example, you may prefer not to advertise the detector's presence at night. No worries; the display can be reduced to a single discrete letter to denote its operating mode. Or if you'd like to check the helath of the vehicle's electrical system, the Escort 8500 X50 will digitally display voltage levels, warning of a problem before you're left stranded some night. There's also a pair of audio tones: standard and loud. We tried both and found them indistinguishable from one another, but it's possible that someone with more acute hearing could detect a difference.
Among the more useful menu items is a trio of city modes. City reduces sensitivity to combat urban false alarms. If that proves insufficient, City LoX further cuts sensitivity. And for microwave-saturated regions that prove resistant to those measures, City NoX cuts X-band entirely. To those who drive in Ohio or New Jersey, the two holdout states whose state cops continue to use hoary old X-band radar, City NoX is the best compromise. It allows traveling on city and county roads devoid of X-band police radar while sharply limiting false alarms. But when driving on a state police-enforced roadway, highway mode restores X band to full sensitivity.
A way to eliminate nuisance false alarms is to use Escort Live, which adds GPS to the Escort Passport 8500 X50. The system also provides real-time alerts of nearby speedtraps and other threats.
Standard is a coiled Smart Cord whose power plug houses two LEDs and a push-button switch. A blue LED glows to verify that the unit is powered-up and ready; a red LED flashes during alerts. The switch controls the manual mute function, allowing the driver to mute alerts without having to fumble with the detector. Those uninterested in that task can wait a few seconds, letting the 8500 X50's auto mute handle the job automatically.
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 will also interface with Escort's ZR4 laser jamming system by plugging a single wire into an interface box. (The two front and single rear laser-jamming "shifters" are mounted in the grille area and near the rear license plate.) Once connected, the detector displays laser alerts and tells you when it's jamming them. The same system fits high-end Beltronics models like the excellent GPS-enabled BEL Pro 500.
To check performance, we tested the Escort 8500 X50 and a BEL (Beltronics) Pro 300. The two use the same platform and under the skin, they're identical. In theory, the pair should perform identically as well. And to no one's great surprise, we confirmed that the Escort 8500 X50 and the BEL Pro 300 were a match.
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 is a refined, sophisticated detector with commendably well-balanced performance. While it can't match its upmarket siblings in maximum range, for moderate-risk drivers it remains our favorite and continues to dominate the under-$339 segment.