Cordless Radar Detector Shootout!
Escort Solo S2 v. BEL 946 v. PNI Traveller II
by Radartest Staff
Last updated: 2015
Discontinued models; the Escort Solo S2 replacement is the Escort Passport Solo S3
There's an unexpected downside to the declining popularity of smoking: the location of the cigarette lighter in many of today's cars is clearly an afterthought. On some models there's no lighter at all; it's an option.
For example, recently we drove a high-end German sedan whose lighter was cleverly located at the back end of the console. When we stuck a radar detector onto the windshield, the cord was three feet too short. Given the choice of either driving this super-sedan at the legal limit all day or re-engineering its electrical system, we did what any sensible driver would do: we fabricated a longer power cord.
A more practical solution is a cordless detector. Never more than a niche market, for years this segment has consisted of only two models, the Escort Solo and the BEL Express (Model 946). But the arrival of an Escort Solo S2 and a second new model, the Sensoro Traveller II, from newcomer Precision Navigation Inc., has energized this sleepy chunk of the market.
Curious to see if the state of the art in cordless models has kept pace with the rest of the industry, we rounded up samples of all three and spent two weeks evaluating them. And for the sake of comparison, we also tested a last-generation Escort Solo to see how far technology has advanced.
Before we begin, let us mention that cordless operation exacts some compromises. That's because everything revolves around battery life. While it's possible to design a battery-powered detector with every bit of the performance and features of a corded model, it would suck down a set of Double-A alkalines in roughly the time it takes you to back from your garage into the street. This forces designers to walk a tightrope, balancing battery longevity with sensitivity.
To do this, the cordless has a duty cycle where it shuts down for a few milliseconds, leading to a reduction in sensitivity, especially on Ka band. Net result: lower sensitivity and shorter radar-warning range.
Think of this as two different tests since three of the models tested, the BEL Express and the PNI Sensoro Traveller II are competitors. The fourth, the Escort Passport Solo S2 (since replaced by the Escort Passport Solo S3), occupies the high end of this segment and with its unique features and at nearly twice the price, has no direct competition. For our first test, here are the results, listed respectively in last to first place.
Test One: Cordless models under $200
Third Place: Escort Solo
To avoid confusion, note that the Solo and Solo S2 are different models and we're talking here about the Solo, a Nineties-era model that has reached the end of its lifespan. We considered skipping the Solo for this reason but felt it might be useful to test it alongside its replacement. Solo owners tend to be loyalists, many of them loathe to trade-in a proven performer for a newcomer. Not that they'll have a choice much longer as Escort ended Solo production some time ago and the only samples you'll find today will be on eBay and similar venues. For this reason we won't take time to extol the old Solo's virtues and mention its shortcomings; we'll merely list its test scores. Judge for yourself if the Solo S2 delivers on Escort's promise of vastly improved utility and performance.
The Traveller II (the word traveler gains an extra L here) is from the company that developed the technology for rear-view mirrors with integral digital thermometer and compass. The offerings to date are the low-end, corded Alpha, plus two cordless units, the Traveller II and SteelEye, the latter two based on the same platform.
Three top-mounted buttons control all of the Traveller II's functions. On the top of the case, farthest to the left is the button for the four-step dim/dark mode, lending a nice degree of adjustability to display brightness. In the middle is the manual mute button (sorry, no auto mute on this model; you'll have to reach over and hit the button to silence an extended alert.) Farthest right is the city/highway switch.
There are two jacks on the right side of the case, one to accommodate a power cord, the second an external speaker or earphone. On the left side of the case near the front is the power/volume button. The latter is a thumbwheel switch, low-tech perhaps but vastly superior to the dual-purpose momentary switches of the BEL Express and Escort Solo that are much slower to adjust.
The Traveller II is simple in design, with a visual display that uses differently colored icons for status information, band ID and signal strength. The latter is indicated audibly by beep frequency, visually by numbers 1 through 4. The display is more resistant to glare than the others' although it can wash out in sunlight. But to its credit, the Traveller II's icons are larger than those in the BEL Express and far more readable under difficult lighting conditions.
Band ID is denoted by X, K, Ka and L icons and by voice alerts. One unique feature: the voice alerts are in both English and Spanish. And the owner manual is bilingual as well.
We were not overwhelmed by the quality of the audible band ID: X and K band sound almost identical although Ka band is reasonably distinct and laser won't be mistaken for anything else. This makes the voice alerts useful to more quickly learn the audio and know what type of radar Ol' Smokey is blasting your way. (Tutorial mode accomplishes the same task.) For this reason we'd consider the Traveller I, its non-voice sibling, to be a somewhat less desirable traveling companion.
The maximum volume of the audio alerts won't pose a danger to the structural integrity of fine crystal but for truly noisy environments--including motorcycles--an earphone or external speaker should help out measurably.
The Traveller II has four City modes: City 1/2/3 progressively lower sensitivity while City 4 shuts it off entirely. We tested each of the four settings and found only about a 10 percent reduction in range for City 1 through City 3, a small enough difference that two of the four settings are largely superfluous.
We found the Traveller II to have a reasonably complete set of features but are mystified by the absence of so basic a function as auto mute, something to be found nearly universally on models at half the price. It does, however, have auto shutoff and powers-down after about 45 minutes of inactivity, a very useful feature.
We found X- and K-band radar performance to be outstanding. It led the pack on both X and K band at the Hill/Curve Test site and scored another first place on X-band City at the Straightaway Test site. K-band performance at the latter site trailed the old Solo's by about 700 feet but exceeded the BEL's by about half that margin.
Detection of Ka-band proved to be problematic however. In one test it only belatedly detected the radar at 81 feet--some 3300 feet after our speed had already been locked-in--and in the second, it failed to detect it entirely. This unit also found laser beams somewhat elusive. When dash-mounted, a laser beam aimed at the front license plate often went unnoticed, making the Traveller II one of the less effective laser countermeasures we've seen.
Driving with a Traveller II is a generally pleasant experience but the quality of the experience might suffer if you've the misfortune to run afoul of Ka-band radar or lasers.
In the world of radar detectors, a production run of several years is exceptional, making the Bill Clinton-era BEL Express one of the longest running cordless models ever. Not that it's showing its age. Its feature set, for instance, is contemporary and it comes with some clever and unique accessories tailored for motorcycle use.
A trio of buttons atop the case handles three-step dim/dark, audio muting and city/highway functions. Power and volume are controlled by a single momentary-on button on the left side of the case. As with the others, the auto shutdown feature helps conserve battery life. There is no provision for a power cord.
The cordless Express is clearly tailored for the motorcycle crowd. Standard are a clip-on 90-degree deflector and earphone speaker which, used in concert, permit the user to place the detector in a shirt pocket, letting the deflector bounce incoming radar and laser beams into the antenna and the speaker to announce them inside the helmet. (Those who insist on riding sans helmet--also known as FODs or future organ donors--will be forced to either rely totally on the visual alerts or to install a powerful auxiliary speaker.)
Visual band identification chores are handled by red X, K, Ka and L icons for radar band, laser and for signal strength. These are adequate in brightness for most occasions but the power-on and mode status indicators--pale green and pale yellow--are simply invisible during daylight. For this reason you'll never know if the unit is powered-up or not, a constant aggravation, particularly for the paranoid.
The quality of the audible band ID is a legacy of older BELs--something we griped about for years--and less distinct than we prefer. Fortunately the tutorial mode helps speed up the learning process. And then there's the clunky windshield mount that comes as a multi-piece kit and requires a screwdriver for adjustment.
We're less ambiguous about its performance. In one test, on X band it trailed the winning Solo by some 1,600 feet in Highway mode, slightly edging out the Traveller II. It tied the latter in X band City at the other test site and trailed it marginally on K band. But the Express scored an important coup: it was the only one of the three able to reliably detect Ka band radar. It was equally proficient in detecting lasers. In all, the BEL turned in by far the most consistent test scores and was the only sub-$200 cordless model to which we'd entrust our driving privileges.
Okay, it placed first in a field of one. But performance is heavily influenced by price and for a fair comparison, we couldn't have the Solo S2 squaring off against models at half its price. Plus, we love testing a class of detectors graced with a single entry: no losers, no angry calls from manufacturers, no attacks from miffed consumers. And the new Escort Solo S2 clearly falls into a class of one, both in design, features and price.
In appearance the Solo S2 won't be mistaken for any other detector. Its compact case is low in profile and platinum-colored, a poor choice for a piece of windshield-mounted mobile electronics. The top of the case generates a noticeable amount of windshield glare in bright sunlight, meaning you'll do well to mount it off-center, to avoid the mirror image reflected into the windshield. All but one of its controls are on the front, which is dominated by a liquid crystal display. The LCD is flanked by a trio of status LEDs on the left plus the power switch. To the right is a pair of volume buttons and a third for mode selection. Each button is covered with a rubber-like non-slip material and operates with a well-damped, expensive feel. The volume buttons are very small and difficult to operate on the fly although the mode button can be depressed with thumb or forefinger. Those with XXL-size digits will probably elect to simply hold the unit in their hand, tap the button and return it to dash or windshield. That freedom is one of the advantages of cordless operation.
The large mute button resides front and center on the case top, no doubt the best--and only, considering the minimal front-panel real estate remaining--spot for it. It doubles as a battery-level indicator: press it and an icon depicting battery life is displayed in the LCD, a clever and highly useful feature.
The LCD is momentarily backlit whenever a function button has been pressed and it also stays lit for the duration of an alert. The rest of the time it's off, to save power. Like all LCDs, it struggles to overcome sunlight and reading it can be a chore. We suspect that many would gladly give up some battery life in exchange for a high-contrast red dot-matrix text display. As it is, we'd recommend keeping the Solo S2 directly in your line of sight for best visibility.
When the optional power cord is attached and the volts are free (it takes the Escort SmartCord whose plug has integral alert and status lights, plus a mute button), the display stays lit, as do the status LEDs. It also displays vehicle voltage, if you're curious about the state of your car's electrical system. Operation with the power cord also permits selecting from five varieties of status displays.
Band ID is displayed by X, K, Ka and Laser. Signal strength is shown by a bar graph that lights progressively, left to right, and audibly by beep frequency. The audio alerts, like those of most Escorts of recent vintage, are highly distinctive and, with Loud Tones option selected, easily loud enough for any cockpit short of a AA fuel dragster.
The Solo S2 has 10 user-programmable options. Among the more useful is the choice between three-level manual display brightness, full-dark or auto mode. City Mode offers standard, low-sensitivity and X-band disabling; K and Ka bands can also be turned off. (X band can safely be shut off in most areas to decrease false alarms. But if you're not certain what bands are in use, let our computerized DetectorSelector assist you.)
Alternate sets of tones help tailor the alert sounds to the user's audible acuity, useful since no two brains interpret sounds identically. Also standard is a fast power-up option, to skip the lengthy self-test sequence, and auto shutoff. The latter warns of imminent power-down after 15 minutes of inactivity; pressing any button acts like a snooze alarm and resets the power, followed by a self-test sequence to verify its good health.
The Solo S2 is unquestionably the most sophisticated, high-performance cordless radar detector on the planet. But having witnessed the lackluster Ka-band sensitivity of its forebear, the new Solo would need to deliver better performance--by an order of magnitude--to win us over.
After a week spent field-testing these cordless models, we'd say it's succeeded. Compared to the old Solo, X-band performance is up 194 percent and K-band by 236 percent. In the Straightaway Test where the old Solo declined to detect Ka-band radar, the S2 spotted it from 5,325 feet away. And its laser scores led the field. This would be superior performance for a corded model; for a cordless detector it's little short of an engineering miracle.