New BEL, Cobra, Whistler Detectors
Best new detector under $199?
Last updated 2015
The Cobra XRS 9950 and Whistler XTR 695SE are taking dead aim at the class-leading Beltronics (BEL) Vector 955. All three are street-priced well below $200 and the Cobra and Whistler models both claim to equal or exceed the BEL in performance. This was certainly enough to merit a field test to measure the sensitivity (radar-detection range) of all three of these radar detectors.
After running the trio through my usual battery of tests, here's what we found, the results listed alphabetically. (If you're looking for a lower price class, check out the companion story for budgets tailored more for under-$150 models.)
The Beltronics (BEL) Vector 955 is slotted three notches below the flagship model in the Vector series, the Beltronics (BEL) Vector 995, covered extensively in another recent review, and just above the Beltronics (BEL) Vector 940 the subject of my review in another recent shootout.
It occupies the same housing as its upscale siblings (with different trim) for instance, which doesn't always work to its advantage. The top of this BEL's case is decorated in matte aluminum, black buttons and large, raised 955 numerals in chrome. In direct sunlight it can generate a substantial amount of glare and you'll be staring at its mirror image in the windshield all day long. (The obvious solution: mount it off-center a bit.)
Conversely, of these three the BEL's high-visibility red text display was the best of the bunch, much more readable in a variety of lighting conditions than either the Whistler's monochromatic LCD or the Cobra's multi-color graphic display.
The BEL Vector 955 has been around for a few years and by current standards, it isn't overly endowed with features. But it has a reasonable number, including three City modes: LoX (lowers X-band sensitivity to limit urban false alarms); NoX (X-band disabled) and Standard, where you're treated to the alerts caused by automatic door openers.
Other features: fast power-up (eliminates a long self-test ritual upon each startup); four-level display brightness; auto mute, voice alerts and two choices of mode display.
Those three modes include city/highway and Auto scan. The last samples the number and quality of incoming signals and adjusts sensitivity as required. Some sensitivity is lost, compared to Highway mode, but the reduction in false alarms is probably worth it. This feature also helps keep this BEL very quiet in town.
In performance the BEL Vector 955 is biased heavily toward K- and Ka-band, no doubt a deliberate and prudent choice by BEL engineers. X-band city-mode sensitivity is clearly trimmed severely to limit urban false alarms. It's better in highway mode - certainly better than the Cobra XRS 9950 we tested - but not quite up to the Whistler XTR695SE in highway mode and way behind in city mode. Not a big deal for most folks unless they routinely drive in Ohio or New Jersey, both of whose state patrols still use X-band.
No complaints about K and Ka performance, though. It was within a few feet of the Whistler in detecting the ubiquitous Stalker Ka-band radar (34.7 gigahertz) and slightly better than the XTR-695 at spotting the 35.5 GHz frequency used by over 90 percent of the remaining Ka-band radar guns. Equally significant, it was also the quietest of the three in town and the most resistant to falsing in reaction to nearby radar detectors. See complete test results
The competition may be closing the gap in sensitivity, but in balanced, all-around performance, the Beltronics (BEL) Vector 955 is still the standard-bearer for this class.
Cobra XRS 9950
This new Cobra radar detector is distinguished by what Cobra calls a Full-Color ExtremeBright DataGrafix Display II, their term for its 1.5-inch OLED multi-color display with 3D graphics. Gadget mavens will enjoy its choice of five different color themes to match the color of their vehicle's dash illumination, e.g., red for BMW and Audi, and so on.
A more significant feature is a USB port that can link it to an optional GPSL module ($129 MSRP). Thus equipped, the Cobra XRS 9950 consults its database of known red light camera and speed camera locations and warns of them in advance.
This is the same GPS module used by the Cobra XRS R9G and its successor, the Cobra XRS R10G, remote models whose Aura camera database we've tested and found to have some big gaps in its camera-location coverage. It lags badly in accuracy and in adding new cameras to the database when compared to the Defender database used by what our tests show to be the best GPS-enabled radar detectors, the BEL (Beltronics) GX65 and the Escort Passport 9500ix. Nor does the Cobra system allow you to lock-out signals, usually automatic door openers operating on X or K band. This difference is important, since unlike the BEL GX65 and the Escort Passport 9500ix, our recent comparison test proves conclusively that it will pester a commuter daily with radar false alarms when passing those ubiquitous roadside door openers and similar microwave sources.
The Cobra XRS 9950's link to the optional GPS module is a very short USB cable, not the best idea since the GPS antenna is intended to be mounted on the upper windshield, well out of your line of sight. This short cable requires the radar detector to be mounted right along side, making it slightly more accessible than if it were in the glovebox, but not much. You can buy a longer USB cable at Radio Shack or elsewhere but then are faced with the dilemma of how to string the GPS power wire, USB cable and radar detector power cord around the cockpit. An integrated, one-piece design like the Passport 9500i and 9500ix is a far more wieldly and elegant solution.
The XRS 9950's graphic display is a work of art and very entertaining to watch. But its generous size and intense illumination make it adequate for reading newspapers in the dead of night. It can be manually dimmed in three steps but automatically goes dark after 30 seconds regardless, leaving only a tiny yellow LED blinking slowly in mid-screen. This makes it impossible to discern which operating mode it's in. For that you'll need to press one of the function buttons atop the case, illuminating the display for another 30 seconds. This method works, but it's cumbersome and we'd rather know at a glance what it's up to. Plus, if it's mounted in a far corner of the upper windshield, next to a GPS antenna, you may have to ask a passenger to intervene on your behalf.
The new Cobra has a long list of features including an 8-point compass, voice alerts, three city modes, auto mute and "12-band detection". You can forget about eight of these "bands". There are only four bands, three for radar and another used by all U.S.-spec laser guns. The remainder is pure marketing hype.
After field-testing this and other Cobras on some of the other "bands" we can say that it has almost no capability to detect the long-defunct Safety Alert System and its Strobe Alert detection of emergency vehicles using the 3M Opticom system is so marginal as to be nearly useless in the real world. The Cobra also proved uncommonly susceptible to other radar detectors, frequently alerting to them on the highway.
But this Cobra XRS 9950 also proved incapable of detecting most police radar guns, a matter of somewhat more significance in a radar detector. At the Curve Test Site it didn't alert to our X-band radar until the target car was parked next to it. In X-band city mode it was effectively dead.
More troubling was its refusal to detect K-band radar, along with one of the two most commonly used Ka-band frequencies. This could well have been a quality-control issue but regardless, the Cobra XRS 9950 offered no real protection against police radar. We doubt if it was designed this way -- the Cobra XRS 9930 radar detector in a recent test performed quite well. But this unit certainly was not enthusiastic about its job. [In our a later test its successor, the Cobra XRS 9955, performed admirably. - Ed.]
Also see our review of this model's successor, the Whistler XTR-695SE.
Although Whistler management seemed hesitant to proclaim the XTR-695 to be a breakthrough design prior to its release, private conversations with the engineering team hinted that it would be something special: A radar detector for the serious road warrior. That's a significant statement.
This group of enthusiast drivers differs from ordinary consumers and places heavy emphasis on a detector's information-delivery ability while giving equal weight to its performance. We're among that group, recognizing that even the best detector is merely a tool. If it doesn't provide detailed information about threats encountered, if it can't detect radar at extreme range (a.k.a. high sensitivity), it's not a tool we'd use in defense of my driver's license. Not surprisingly, we were curious to see if the new Whistler could live up to its advance billing.
In appearance, the Whistler XTR-695 is a radical departure from past models. Namely, its top case, speaker grille and buttons aren't slathered with chrome. Other than some unobtrusive white labels, it's all-black. The payoff is minimal windshield glare, a big advantage.
In our opinion any properly designed piece of windshield-mounted mobile electronic gear should be flat black, period. Even white labels create mirror images in the windshield. No question that embellishing the upper case with metallic inserts and chrome buttons makes it stand out on a sales display rack. But it also makes the detector all but useless in bright sunlight. The only fix is to move it out of your line of sight, hardly the optimal solution when relying on its information to make a split-second decision.
And that's often all the time allowed when you blunder into instant-on radar. Squinting at a distant radar detector and trying to interpret its message not only takes way too long, it's also a dangerous distraction from the task of driving.
We won't go into great detail about the Whistler XTR-695's feature set; there are more important details to cover. But we can attest to the fact that it's very competitive, with voice alerts, auto mute, digital compass, selectable band defeat (not offered on the other two); multiple city-mode settings, multiple Filter modes to further reduce urban false alarms, and many others.
It's the Whistler XTR-695's unique features and performance that separate it from the pack. Key among the former is something Whistler calls Ka RSID for Ka-band radar signal identification.
What's it mean? In simple terms, it tells you at a glance how to react to a Ka-band alert. Option 1: Instantly stand on the brakes to the point of feeling the ABS kick in, or Option 2: Ignore it. Big difference between the two, right?
Conventional radar detectors merely flash "Ka band" yet most Ka-band signals are caused by other radar detectors, a common phenomenon called a harmonic, or multiple, of the other detector's local-oscillator frequency. For example, Cobra radar detectors sold prior to mid-2002 used a LO frequency varying from 11.9 to 12.2 GHz. Multiply 11.9 by three and now we've got a 35.7 GHz Ka-band signal, not far from the real 35.5 GHz police radar frequency. This will cause any properly designed radar detector to issue a Ka-band alert.
Being able to distinguish between a local oscillator and real police radar is an enormous advantage. High-end Escort and BELtronics models have had this feature for years. But it displays the exact frequency, like 34.697 or 35.496, leaving it up to you to figure out what it all means. We've tried for years to explain the value of this feature, but the eyes of even diehard technophiles inevitably glaze over within moments. On the Whistler XTR-695, if it's a bogus signal there's no frequency displayed, meaning you can ignore it. If it's the real deal, you'll see 33.8, 34.7 or 35.5, corresponding to each of the Ka-band radar frequencies. Much easier to understand, and it'll save a lot of wear and tear on your brakes and tires, not to mention your nerves.
Other features include several background colors for the LCD text display when in alert mode. This enables the user to assign a distinct color to X, K and Ka band, plus laser. No need to study the display, just check the color and you'll know what radar frequency you're up against or whether it's an encounter with a laser. This scheme was tried by Uniden in the early nineties but with rudimentary tri-color LEDs, never with an LCD text display. In contrast, this one works well.
None of this would matter if the Whistler XTR-695 couldn't exhibit exceptional sensitivity, the all-important ability to spot radar at long range. Fortunately, it has range to spare. At the Straightaway Test Site it led the BEL (Beltronics) Vector 955 on X and K bands as well as on one of the two Ka-bands. It trailed the Beltronics radar detector by a negligible amount on the other Ka-band frequency. The Whistler XTR-695 performed similarly at the far more difficult Curve Test Site where the radar is shooting uphill and away from the target's direction of travel, making it extremely tough to spot in time. On the road it also showed good resistance to false alarms, not as good as the BEL (Beltronics) Vector 955 but close, and much better than the Cobra XRS 9950.
We'd call this a breakthrough for Whistler, which for years has trailed the class-leading BEL radar detectors in pure sensitivity. Now they've got a model that's equal to or better than its BEL competitor in that department. And, there's nothing street-priced under $275 in new models that comes close to this Whistler's features and attributes plus, that elusive long detection range, always in demand by serious drivers.