Price inevitably will dictate radar detector performance.
If you think buying a car is a hassle, try radar detectors. When searching for the best radar detector, generic features are easy to evaluate. Auto mute, city/highway modes and other common features are a cinch to quantify. If you get lost easily, the value of a built-in compass is obvious. The challenge is how to decode the the bewildering array of technical terms and manufacturer claims. [Or skip directly to the best-performing radar detectors we've tested.]
For example, how is one expected to rate the importance of one Cobra feature, Spectre I undetectable? (The Spectre is a radar detector detector used by lawmen to spot detectors where they're illegal—in Virginia, Washington, D.C., some Canadian provinces, and in big commercial U.S. trucks.)
BEL (Beltronics) and Escort, even Whistler, make no mention at all of the Spectre I radar detector detector. Yet BEL invented the Spectre-undetectable, high-performance radar detector, the excellent BEL Magnum STi. It's a clone of the superb Escort Redline.
The Cobras are far less expensive; if they're Spectre-proof as advertised, doesn't that make them the better deal? Hardly: the Spectre I model hasn't been used for years snd modern Spectres can easily spot most Cobras from a quarter-mile away. Only four BEL and Escort models are truly undetectable.
What about another Cobra claim, 15-band detection? Surely 15 is better than the competitions' detection of only three or four radar bands, right? But only three radar bands exist in the U.S. and only two—K and Ka—are commonly used. The rest are pure marketing hype.
These are the sort of bewildering claims that so complicate the selection process. There's a staggering array of features mentioned for radar detectors and many are manufacturer-specific, making it impossible to compare a model from Cobra or Whistler to a competing model from BEL or Escort. (Comparing GPS-enabled models (immmune to false alarms and red light cameras) is harder still. But we simplify that process in our GPS Radar Detector Buyer's Guide.
If you'd like to speed up the selection process and save this tech-talk for later, see our top detector picks to quickly find the right model.
Listed alphabetically by manufacturer, here's our take on some of the most frequently mentioned features.
Digital 'POP' Radar Alert
Radar being used in POP-mode is seldom encountered and detecting POP mode is of dubious value. Most detectors claimed to be
capable of detecting POP mode are shipped with the feature deactivated. The manufacturers know that with POP-mode detection engaged, the detector will show a big increase in false
alarms. Its microprocessor takes less time to analyze a signal, trying to catch one of these elusive 160 milliseconds-long bursts. And it frequently gets it wrong, alerting unnecessarily in
reaction to a non-threatening signal.
Feature value: Somewhat useful but only if you drive in areas where POP-mode radar is used.
"Digital Signal Processing (DSP)"
DSP is the best thing ever to happen to the radar detector. Harnessing the power of the microchip has exponentially increased detection range while helping to limit false alarms and
widen the overall utility of today's detectors. Every manufacturer uses it—with varying degrees of success.
Feature value: High, although the use of DSP technology is hardly exclusive these days.
Detectors with longer range deliver significantly better protection than low-performance radar detectors.
This practice is hugely expensive, the reason why only a couple of high-end models use two antennas. (One, the Valentine One or V1, has a second antenna that faces rearward. Under some conditions this gives it nearly the same detection range of radar coming from behind.
But radar behind is largely a non-issue, and competing detectors have one to four miles of rear detection range using their front antenna, making the V1's unique arrangement of questionable value. It also makes the V1 false-alarm hysterically when installed in an Audi or other car equipped with a radar-based Blind Spot Warning System such as Side Assist. Mercedes uses the same type of K-band-frequency radar in its Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system, setting off every radar detector in the neighborhood.
The BEL STi Magnum and Escort Redline employ additional components to capitalize on the second radar antenna: another low noise amplifier (LNA) and mixer, allowing one antenna to be dedicated to X band and the second to receiving K- and Ka-band signals. The LNA amplifies very weak signals, sort of like adding a supercharger or turbocharger to a normally-aspirated car engine to radically increase performance. With all this attention devoted separately to the frequencies, sensitivity takes a big spike upward.
This is why in a recent test one of our Escort RedLine units was able to spot radar from over 14 miles away under ideal conditions. This was triple the range of the most expensive Cobra and Whistler models tested at the same site, a graphic illustration of why high-end radar detectors substantially outperform lower-priced units.
Some inexpensive detectors work adequately under good conditions. But conditions not infrequently are less than optimal.
Feature value: Extremely high
"Easy-to-Use Options and Controls"
A Swiss Army knife is a great tool. But exploring each of its 17 functions while driving is probably not a good idea. The same can be said for a badly-designed radar detector with fussy controls and obtuse programming. Ease of operation is crucial to a radar detector's genuine usefulness on the road. A welcomed byproduct is enhanced driver safety.
Locating the controls can be elusive at night, particularly when in a hurry. But while even the lowliest of cars has backlighting for its major controls, the detector industry ignored the practice for eons. Fortunately, several high-end BEL, Escort and Whistler models now have these, a useful addition.
You can test a radar detector's user-friendliness yourself. Power up the unit, enter menu mode and disable one of the radar bands. If after a few tries this can't be accomplished within 15 seconds, the
detector is an inept design.
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"Multi-Sensor Laser Protection"
A single infrared-frequency detector diode (sensor) is adequate to spot an incoming laser beam. But more is better. When positioned like your fingers splayed outward, an array of sensors stands a better chance of seeing the laser beam when it's off to one side. That's commendable but unfortunately, laser alerts are usually too late to be of use. (If lasers are a headache, you'll need a good laser jammer to handle that threat.)
Feature value: Useful in theory, but rarely in practice
(Called Speed Alert in Escort models.) For those who don't routinely monitor their speed, this brief digital speed display at the onset of an alert might come in handy.
Feature value: Moderate, for alert drivers.
This is BEL-speak for "You're invisible to radar detector-detectors". The BEL STi Magnum is a completely undetectable dash-mount radar detector. The Escort RedLine is equally immune to radar detector detectors, making them top picks for those who drive in Virginia or Washington, D.C., also for professional drivers holding a CDL. Two remote models also are undetectable, the Escort Passport 9500ci and its twin, the BEL STiR Plus. The last two have GPS, which protects from red light and speed cameras as well.
Feature value: Extremely high—but only for those who drive in Virginia or Washington, D.C. or in countries where detector use in cars is banned.
BEL and Escort were the first to offer Spec mode, although BEL prefers to call it Tech mode. A similar feature by Cobra is called Frequency Display and Whistler's version is dubbed RSID. Each will digitally display a radar
signal's frequency. This permits an instant analysis of a Ka-band threat—at least if you know which Ka-band frequencies are used by police radar.
Ka-band police radar is everywhere today, but this frequency also is home to a vast number of non-police radar signals. Our customers are sent Performance Tips, an exclusive and free guide with tips on how to use this feature and others.
Only three or four platforms are used to produce dozens of Cobra models at a wide range of price points. With few significant differences between many of these detectors, Cobra's considerable marketing talent has created a dazzling array of pseudo-features to help differentiate them from one another and from the competition.
There are only three radar bands used in the U.S.—X, K and Ka. Of the remaining bands claimed by Cobra, only Ku band is actually a radar frequency, and there's never been a Ku-band radar sold in this country. It's even hard to find one in Europe, Ku-band's birthplace. Only a couple of models used Ku band there and the last of those, a
French-made Sagem, hasn't been in production since Bill Clinton left the White House.
And those claimed six laser frequencies? Every commonly sold police laser currently in production here and abroad shares a common frequency: 904 nanometers.
Feature value: None
Cobra XRS-9950 with ExtremeBright DataGraphix II display
"Full Color ExtremeBright DataGrafix II Display"
Like watching color TV? Great: Now imagine having a tiny TV screen in your face while you're trying to drive. It's every bit as distracting as it sounds. And that's during daylight. Within
five minutes after darkness falls, you'll likely experience an overwhelming urge to rip the radar detector off the dash and toss it into the back seat. Possibly out of the window.
Feature value: Entertaining for some drivers, but not all.
Better read the small print before using this feature. In Intellimute Pro mode a Cobra radar detector is rendered undetectable through a very simple strategy: it shuts itself off. The detection circuitry is disabled, making the detector impossible to detect. The downside: during this time it doesn't detect radar, leaving the driver defenseless.
Feature value: Dubious
A laudable concept but two problems kept it from greatness. The Safety Alert transmiters necessary for this system to work are more than, to use Cobra's words, exclusive: They're nonexistent. Even when a few existed years ago, no Cobra radar detector could detect them from more than a few car lengths away. The only Safety Alert warnings we've experienced in recent years were false alarms. These included a few during our test of Escort Live and iRadar.
Feature value: None
"Spectre I Undetectable"
The Spectre (called Stalcar outside the States) Mk I was introduced in 2000 and was succeeded by the Mk II two years later. If there's a Mk I Spectre still in service anywhere in the world, whichever police department that's using this fossil should keep it in a safe place. It'll soon be a collector item.
The Spectre Mk IV (introduced in 2008) is the one to worry about. The Spectre (Stalcar) Mk IV and Mk IV+ are vastly different from earlier models and we verified in a recent test and review that they can easily spot Cobra radar detectors from hundreds of feet away.
Feature value: Zero
Spectre (Stalcar) radar detector detector
"Spectre Alert I/IV+ "
Cobra uses the term "alerts" somewhat casually. When we tested the Cobras' ability to detect the Spectre Mk IV+, none could spot it from more than 15 feet away.
Feature value: None
Having tested this feature, we say with certainty that Strobe Alert works. Sort of, if the emergency vehicle is directly ahead, and if it's not too far away.
This is also precisely the circumstance when, by rights, a Strobe Alert feature shouldn't be necessary. This assumes, of course, that the motorist is driving with eyes open.
But if the strobe-light beam is coming from the side or behind, the very times when a little help may be useful, the system is helpless. The reason: the detector only reacts to a nearly straight-on hit by the light beam. When it's coming from any other compass point, the detector can't see it from across an intersection.
Feature value: Very little
The ancient Canadian-made Technisonics Interceptor VG-2 RDD has been out of production for many years. But a few remain in service here. In an act of dazzling dimwittedness a few
years ago, the Texas Highway Patrol ignored the state-of-the-art Spectre RDD and purchased 100 of the obsolete VG-2s for their commercial vehicle enforcement units. Radar detector
use in big trucks is banned and CVE units deal with big rigs, so the Department of Public Safety armed them with RDDs.
But with the exception of a few older Whistler models (when not placed in VG-2-undetectable mode) and the Adaptive TPX motorcycle radar detector, nearly all detectors sold in the U.S. since the late nineties have been undetectable by the VG-2. Remember, it's the Spectre Mk IV RDD one needs to be concerned about. And then only for those driving in the one state where detectors in cars are banned, Virginia. (Or Washington, D.C.)
Feature value: Equivalent to being told you're immune to hoof-and-mouth disease.
"Ultra-Bright Matrix Display"
Escort Redline has a high-visibility red text display.
A radar detector is an information-delivery device, much of it supplied visually. If one can't decipher what it displays, the detector is of little more use than a box of Kleenex on the dash.
An OLED display looks fabulous in photos. But it's a very different story on the road, where it usually washes out badly in sunlight. High-intensity, high-resolution matrix displays are expensive, which explains their absence on low- and mid-priced detectors. But they're worth it.
Strangely, although often pricier, blue displays generally outsell red by a wide margin. But the choice really depends upon personal preference, visual acuity and ambient lighting conditions. Both colors have advantages.
GPS allows some radar detectors to warn of red light cameras and reduces false alarms.
With digital signal processing or DSP, a microchip compares the electronic signature of a radar signal to known sources of false alarms, particularly automatic door openers and other radar detectors. Auto mode significantly decreases the number of false alarms, especially in town.
Feature value: Very high
It's not uncommon for two microwave signals to be present simultaneously, particularly in town. This presents a dilemma for the detector: to which signal should it alert?
Traditionally manufacturers have prioritized alerts, with laser deemed most critical, followed by Ka, K and X band. But only one of these frequencies is displayed, leaving the driver clueless about the nature of the other threat.
Escort (and BEL) developed a unique solution to this problem. ExpertMeter (called Threat Display on some models) displays up to nine simultaneous signals along with the relative signal strength of each. This allows the driver
to decide how best to react.
Feature value: Very high
The microchip supporting a detector's Digital Signal Processing (DSP) could, in theory at least, be an EPROM instead, a read-only processor. Once programmed, it's locked forever, no changes or updates allowed.
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Escort and BEL use read/write microchips that can be reprogrammed. The marketing claim is that this feature allows the detector to be updated to meet future threats. While that's
accurate, the lifespan of a detector—and the typically long intervals between significant new enforcement threats—mean that the odds of you returning a detector for software upgrades are probably an even-money bet or less.
The boffins at Whistler have also generated some unique acronyms in recent years. To its credit, Whistler of late has concentrated on features to enhance the performance and utility of its high-end models. Rather than lavish development money on cosmetics and marketing hype, instead the engineers have quietly pumped-up the radar-warning range and added features that give a sharp driver a better chance of surviving encounters with radar traps. Among others:
This one is self-explanatory and, refreshingly, accurate as well. The current models comprise its best-performing units in memory, well documented in our reviews and tests of the Whistler CR85 and the Whistler CR90, the latter being the best of the GPS-enabled models in its price class.
Feature value: High
"Laser Signature ID: displays Pulses Per Second (PPS)"
Cobra introduced this feature to legitimize its use of different models of laser to create additional "bands". But while Cobras frequently incorrectly identify laser signals, Whistlers usually get it right.
Feature value: Low, except to a tech-savvy nerd
"Radar Signature ID - RSID displays known Ka gun frequencies"
RSID is the Whistler equivalent of BEL's Spec Display and Escort's Tech mode but it's easier to comprehend and for the average driver, more effective. The BEL and Escort display a five-digit frequency, e.g., 34.358, leaving it up to the driver to gauge its significance.
Whistler simplifies the process. It knows that a signal in the neighborhood of 35.5 GHz is home turf to several models of police radar and
reacts by displaying 35.5 Ka. Time to stand on the brakes.
Had the frequency been too far from 35.5 to be legit, the Whistler would have displayed a simple Ka
band , plus the digital signal strength—9 in this instance—instead. This is a very elegant way to convey an important, although sometimes puzzling bit of information.
Feature value: Very high for attentive drivers
The Australian government requires auto makers to equip new cars with audible/visual warnings that automatically remind drivers to take rest stops. Naturally, these irritating
warnings are universally ignored. Well meaning perhaps, but both dumb and intrusive. Offering the same feature in a radar detector elicits similar reactions. Worse, it's easy to
accidentally engage this feature and without the owner manual, nearly impossible to disable it. This means you'll be subjected to a woman's voice endlessly issuing periodic warnings to
get some rest, just like having your mother-in-law in back.
Feature value: Some narcolepsy sufferers may find it useful.
"Three Filter Modes: provide extra filtering"
The term filter is a good way to describe this feature's purpose in life. It passes incoming signals through an additional set of filters that help to weed out spurious signals
from other radar detectors. Most useful in town, it works as promised.
Feature value: Fairly high
"Total Band Protection"
This is Whistler's nomenclature for selective radar band deactivation. Those who don't have to fret about X-band radar can shut it off to limit urban false alarms, for example.
Feature value: Fairly high since it keeps the detector quieter.
"Vehicle Battery Saver"
A radar detector doesn't draw much power but if left on, eventually it will drain the battery. The process may take two weeks with a healthy SUV battery, but unless you can arrange
for an exemption from Ohm's Law, you can be assured that it will happen. This feature switches the detector off after a period, giving the car battery a rest.
Feature value: Low, unless you often leave your vehicle parked at an airport or elsewhere for weeks at a time. But it can't hurt.