Last updated 2014
Also see the most recent BEL STi Magnum review
Beltronics (BEL) STi Magnum, the only undetectable high-performance radar detector with a metal case.
Discussions about radar detectors inevitably get around to the question: What's the best radar detector? Tough call: the definition of "best" varies widely, as do drivers' expectations.
For instance, most new owners are thrilled when their detector goes off before a radar-equipped cruiser pops into view.
But on other occasions the warning inexplicably comes too late to be useful. And they're
baffled by frequent K- and Ka-band alerts when they haven't seen a police vehicle for hours. Eventually they upgrade, figuring: If it's the most expensive, certainly it will deliver the best protection.
Not necessarily. Pick a model that's lousy at detecting POP-mode radar, for instance, and divine intervention may be needed to sneak past some highway patrol radar guns unscathed.
Two models claiming to be the ultimate in radar protection are the $399 Valentine One (or V1), and the $499 BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum. To gauge their merit, we anonymously purchased samples and ran them through our battery of tests.
Until the arrival of the BEL STi Magnum, the Valentine One was the only dash-mount model in the over-$395 price segment. It's since been joined by others. These include some GPS-enabled models, the Escort Passport Max, Escort Passport 9500ix and the BEL (Beltronics) Pro 500. Also included is a non-GPS model, the Escort Redline, which set a record when it detected our radar guns from a supernatural 14.17-mile distance.
The issue of long-range supremacy brought up a question I've never been able to
answer. Nor has anyone else: Given unrestricted room, how far away can the best radar detectors spot police radar?
The Test Site
To find out, we'd require some extra space. Eventually we found a suitable venue in western Arizona, a 13-mile-long swath of die-straight, level state highway. We measured its elevation at 1,000-foot intervals using GPS units, double-checking the data with Google Earth. Both sources showed less than a few hundred feet of elevation deviation over the length of the site.
Long radar-detection range is crucial, especially when conditions favor the enforcers.
In the interest of fairness, it's worth noting that the farthest point on the site was about 200 feet higher in elevation than the radar vehicle, parked on the shoulder some 12 miles away. This extra height initially gave each detector a better chance of spotting the radar. But after our target car had descended that tiny hill, the remainder of the course was almost flat, marked occasionally by imperceptible high points.
We also tested the BEL STi Magnum and Valentine One at our Hill/Curve Test Site 30 miles northwest of Phoenix, the ultimate real-world test.
The cruiser is hunkered down in a plunging S-curve, its radar picking off vehicles as they pop into view less than 750 feet away.
How We Rated Them
A maximum score of 200 points was possible: 140 for radar performance and 20 each for resistance to false alarms, features and ergonomics. Radar scores were weighted by threat level. X band: 5 points, K band: 20 points and 15 each for the three Ka-band frequencies. Radar scores from the two test sites were averaged.
- Excellent X-, K-band sensitivity
- Class-leading laser detection
- Simple controls
- Uneven Ka-band sensitivity
- Few features
- No auto mute
- Abundant false alarms
The Valentine One, introduced in 1991, received laser-detection circuitry in the mid-1990s and a revised circuit board in 2007. Aside from minor firmware revisions over the decades, it's otherwise unchanged from the original.
Particularly in light of its age, the V1 delivered stellar X- and K-band maximum radar range, equaling the BEL STi Magnum at 11.3 miles. But it stumbled somewhat on the widely used 35.5-gigahertz Ka band frequency.
Same thing at the Hill/Curve Test site. Although its X- and K-band scores were excellent, closely trailing the BEL STi Magnum's, again it lagged well behind the BEL on 35.5 GHz Ka-band. We noticed the same behavior in a later shootout with the Escort Redline.
More troubling was the V1's sudden refusal to detect K-band radar, even when parked next to the gun. The Valentine One displayed no warning of possible trouble, but it clearly was dead on K band. After purchasing a second sample, also with the latest software, we re-ran both tests.
Scores totaled, the BEL STi Magnum edged out the V1. Does that make the Valentine One the world's second-best radar detector? V1 fans are quick to praise its directional arrows, rear antenna and superior laser detection. And they've got a point. Under ideal conditions the directional arrows can pinpoint the direction of an incoming radar beam. And the rear antenna allows
the V1 to detect radar coming from behind nearly as well as from ahead. It's also the best in the business at detecting lasers. Some may feel these strengths help to offset its shortcomings.
Radar coming from behind, though, isn't a major threat. And even without a rear-facing antenna, the BEL STi Magnum and Escort Redline can detect radar in back from one mile away or more. While it's true that detecting lasers can occasionally be helpful, the only laser defense remains the laser jammer.
Clearly the Valentine One can still keep its newer competitors within sight. But advances in technology denied it top ranking in this test.
An Overheating Issue?
We were curious about the cause of the V1's mid-test failure. Both contestants have a magnesium case; we wondered if thermal buildup somehow caused our first V1 to overheat.
To find out, we placed two of each model detector on the dash of an Audi A4 and left them running. With windows up and engine off, we checked temperatures at 20-minute intervals using a digital pyrometer. Ambient temperatures during testing ranged from a balmy 78 degrees to 93 degrees Fahrenheit.
We were surprised by the results. Neither Valentine One indicated a problem, although both had reached 153° F within 58 minutes. At the 62-minute mark our first BEL STi Magnum hit 154° F. Then it displayed a "Service Required" warning and shut down to protect itself. The other BEL STi Magnum followed suit 18 minutes later, its metal case having reached a toasty 163° F.
Test complete, we started the Audi and ran its A/C until the interior again was at room temperature. But one V1 remained dead on K band, the other on both X and K bands. They required factory repair, taking them out of service for two weeks. We were disappointed at the Valentine One's lack of diagnostic software to warn of these silent failures.
In contrast, after an eight-minute cooling-off period both BEL STi Magnums resumed normal operation and began detecting our radar guns again.
BEL STi Magnum
BEL STi Magnum controls are backlit for easier operation at night.
Valentine One controls
- Superb radar range
- Extensive feature set
- Resistant to false alarms
- Undetectable by RDDs
- Not immune to false alarms
The BEL STi Magnum uses dual radar antennas and premium components to improve radar range. It's also one of only four models immune to radar detector detectors like the Australian-made Spectre RDD.
I verified the claimed immunity to RDDs by powering-up a late-model Spectre (Stalcar) Elite on the dash next to the BEL STi Magnum. As promised, the Spectre was unable to detect the BEL.
Like the Valentine One, the BEL STi Magnum is a non-GPS design, but it's compatible with Escort Live. The system includes built-in Bluetooth that links the detector to either an iPhone or Android smartphone loaded with the free Escort Live app. Once the two have been paired, the phone adds the benefits of GPS to the BEL STi Magnum, cutting false alarms while warning of red light cameras and speed traps.
The BEL STi Magnum excelled at ferreting out distant radars. It spotted all five of our radar guns from over 11.25 miles away, at test time the best-ever performance from a radar detector. [Since eclipsed by the BEL's corporate clones, the Escort Redline XR and Escort Redline.]
On Ka band, by far the most critical radar frequency, the BEL STi Magnum outperformed the Valentine One. It also eclipsed the V1 in user-friendliness and ease of operation. And unlike the Valentine One, the BEL STi Magnum has self-test diagnostics to protect its vitals and warn of problems.
Sophistication, features and world-class radar range continue to make the BEL STi Magnum one of our favorites. Its immunity to radar detector detectors also makes it invaluable when driving in no-detector areas like Virginia and much of Canada.
BEL STi Magnum
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