Radar Detectors Review
Why Buy a Radar Detector?
The top performers in our review are Escort Max 360, the Gold Award winner; Escort Passport Max2, the Silver Award winner; and Escort Passport 9500ix, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 radar detectors.
Driving is dangerous. When you step into your motor vehicle, you put yourself in control of a metal box on wheels that carries a tank of flammable liquid and an engine capable of turning you into a missile. The faster you drive, the less control you have over your vehicle. And few things are as irresponsible and dangerous as distracted and impaired driving.
When you consider the fact that you share the road with over 200 million other drivers, it's no wonder that people get hurt – From 2005 to 2014, there was an average of 35,567 fatalities on U.S. roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Some people who want a radar detector are looking for a way of gaming the system, to drive "under" the radar, so to speak. They look at a radar detector as giving them the license to speed when the fuzz aren't looking. Others might look at radar detectors as a way of avoiding expensive tickets while on a long road trip or a long commute. Whether admitted or not, some small towns are infamous for setting up speed traps for tourists just driving through. These tickets can be costly, especially if you live out of state, which makes you less likely to fight the ticket.
At Top Ten Reviews, we don't condone reckless, distracted driving. As such, our comparative review focuses on how radar detectors are tools for safe driving. The best radar detectors keep you aware of your surroundings on the road. The act of operating a moving two-ton box can become so routine that it's easy to become distracted with other things. You listen to talk radio, sing along to music, listen to an audiobook, gossip with a passenger, talk on the phone and more – all while driving. (Hopefully, you never text either.) Distractions happen. It's easy to forget basic traffic laws, like driving the posted speed limit or stopping completely at a stop sign.
The best radar detectors make you a safer driver. Every alert you receive makes you consider how you're driving, even false-alerts, because the alert reminds you why you bought the radar detector in the first place – to avoid costly tickets. Alerts force you to consider your speed and the distance between you and the cars also on the road. Alerts keep you from getting too distracted and complacent. Some radar detectors can alert you to when you've exceeded the posted speed limit. Most radar detectors will alert you to emergency vehicles and reported road hazards that you're nearing so you can adjust your driving appropriately.
Police Radar: What Is the Purpose?
Traffic laws exist for a reason. With so many vehicles sharing the road, non-verbal communication between drivers is critical. This is why all motor vehicles have to turn signals and brake lights. It's also why prospective drivers are required to take a test to prove that they know and understand traffic laws.
By creating defined parameters, all drivers can reasonably anticipate how other drivers will react on the road, which allows them to react accordingly. Traffic laws are not suggestions, but a way of facilitating the communication between you and the other drivers you share the road with.
With that in mind, traffic police also exist for a reason. For the vast majority of the time, you're able to drive however you wish without receiving a ticket. This means that obeying traffic laws is largely a matter of personal integrity: You can choose to roll through the stop sign and most of time, you won't see blue, red, and white lights flashing in your rearview mirror. But by knowing that there might be potential ramifications should a police car catch you rolling through a stop sign, then you're more likely to obey the traffic laws, which makes us all safer on the roads.
One of the ways police enforce laws is they use radar or laser technology to measure how fast vehicles are traveling. That said, they can use other methods as well. They can travel behind you and gauge your speed against their speed. They can use a stopwatch to measure how fast you travel within a specified time. In other words, a radar detector doesn't protect you against receiving a speeding ticket.
That's important to remember – just because your radar detector isn't telling you there's radar in the vicinity doesn't mean there aren't police tracking your speed.
Radar Detection: How It Works
Radar guns emit a radar pulse that bounces off the surrounding landscape. Moving objects reflect the pulse back to the radar gun, which measured the Doppler shift in the reflected signal to determine the speed. A Doppler shift, often referred to as the Doppler effect, is the change in frequency within a wave relative to its source.
You experience the Doppler effect whenever you hear a police siren from a distance. The frequency of the siren starts low but grows higher as it approaches you. As soon as the siren passes you, the frequency recedes as it drives further away. A radar gun can measure this effect on moving vehicles to determine the speed with high accuracy, so long as the radar gun is calibrated.
Whenever a police officer uses his gun to measure the speed of a car, the radar frequencies bounce off the landscape until they eventually fade away. While you can't see this, the concept is similar to dropping a pebble into a cup and watching the ripples bounce off the sides until the water is flat again. A radar gun is able to detect the ripples. They can determine the strength of the wave, which can help you know how close you are to the object.
Radar guns in the U.S. are only allowed to work on three radar frequency bands – X-band (10.5 to 10.55 GHz), K-band (24.05 to 24.26 GHz), and Ka-band (33.4 to 36 GHz). As such, every radar detector on the market should detect these frequencies.
Radar Detection Range & Sensitivity
One of the biggest misconceptions people have with radar detectors is that the devices are "looking" for radar guns. Unfortunately, this is largely due to marketing language used by manufacturers. Radar detectors aren't searching out radar. Radar detectors are passive. They can only listen.
One way of imagining their detection range is to think of it as the listening range. Go outside and close your eyes. Listen to your surroundings. How far can you hear? You'll recognize the closest sounds as the strongest, obviously – birds, children playing, wind blowing through the trees. But if you focus, you might hear the faint sound of a police siren miles away. This is similar to how radar detectors listen to radar.
As such, it's difficult to adequately evaluate range and distance of a radar detector because it depends on the gun being used and how the radar is reflecting off the surrounding landscape. Also, a cop could be right next to you and pointing the gun away from you and you'd never know it – that is, until they turned in your direction.
A sensitive detector can recognize the faintest radar echoes miles away, but this sensitivity comes at a cost. Garage door openers, motion detectors and other civilian devices use the same radar frequencies, which means that if the detector is really sensitive, you wouldn't be able to drive around your city without suffering through a torrent of alerts from your detector.
To remedy this, every radar detector has various sensitivity settings. The setting that gives you the most range is generally the highway setting. Obviously, you'd only use this setting on the highway where you're less likely to encounter false alerts. City settings are less sensitive, and some settings eliminate the X-radar band from detection altogether. Most radar detectors are also equipped with digital signal processing that can learn over time as you use it in your area, which alerts are real and which are innocuous.
Laser Lidar Detector
A laser gun, sometimes called Lidar, is another method that law enforcement uses to determine speed. Laser guns are highly accurate and very precise. While a radar gun emits radar waves that bounce all over the landscape, including other cars, a laser gun uses an invisible beam of light. A police officer can aim a laser gun at your vehicle from over a mile away and receive an accurate and immediate reading.
Every radar gun in our review detects lasers. However, since the laser doesn't bounce off the surrounding landscape like radar waves, if you receive a laser gun alert, then the police officer already knows your speed. Laser detectors don't provide any foreknowledge. The best you can hope for is to sufficiently adjust your speed prior to the officer deciding whether to pull you over or not. That said, with community-sharing apps like Escort Live, if someone who also uses the app receives a laser alert down the road from you, then you'll receive an alert too.
Radar Detectors: Investment or Expensive Toy?
The best radar detectors are not cheap, usually costing between $400 and $650, which is a significant investment. But is it worth it? Or are radar detectors just an expensive accessory, a toy that flashes and beeps as you drive?
Consider this: The average cost for a speeding ticket in the U.S., according to esurance.com, is $150. But fines vary drastically depending on where you got the ticket. In Virginia (where radar detectors are illegal) and Illinois, speeding tickets have a maximum fine of $2,500, but in Tennessee, the maximum fine for speeding is $50.
If a radar detector helps you avoid tickets, it'll pay for itself after a while. Many users claim that their radar detectors paid for themselves after a few months. And this doesn't take into account any increases a ticket has on your insurance premium.
That said, investing in a radar detector isn't necessary to avoid costly tickets. Just drive within the parameters of the law at all times. Of course, that's easier said than done. As we discussed earlier, it's easy to become distracted, to forget the speed limit and find yourself on the side of the road with red-and-blue lights flickering in your rear view. At the very least, radar detectors help you maintain awareness of your driving habits so you can drive within the legal parameters.
Choosing an Affordable Radar Detector
The detection abilities of the most affordable radar detectors aren't going to be much different from high-end models. The difference lies primarily in the number of specific alert features and control features. Affordable radar detectors generally lack Bluetooth, which allows it to integrate with a community-sharing app. They also tend to lack built-in GPS, which provides better false alert filtering and location marking.
At about $280, Whistler CR90 is one of the more affordable radar detectors in our review. However, this includes built-in GPS and a defender database for added protection. This radar detector has similar performance as the high-end models, but costs nearly half as much.
Radar Jammers & Other Legal Concerns
According to the Communications Act of 1934, laser radar detectors are legal to use in private vehicles, which means you can legally use a radar detector so long as you're not a commercial truck driver. That said, radar detectors are illegal in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and on every U.S. military base.
On the other hand, radar jammers are illegal everywhere under federal law because this interferes with law enforcement's ability to do their job. A radar jammer is a device that sends out a radar pulse that interferes with the radar gun's ability to accurately read your speed. None of the radar detectors in our review have this capability.
While radar detectors aren't illegal, most devices come with a quick-release suction cup so you can remove the detector from your dashboard if you're pulled over. While the officer can't ticket you for having one, it certainly won't invite sympathy.
Radar Detectors Review: What We Evaluated, What We Found
Accurate radar detection is relatively difficult to test in a short period. Radar detectors are prone to false alerts when you first get them. As you drive around, the digital signal processor eventually distinguishes frequencies from a garage door opener and a police radar.
As such, you may not know how effective your radar detector is until you've used it for several months, which is beyond our ability to perform hands-on tests. To account for this, we collated thousands of user reviews and expert advice to evaluate each detector.
We looked at every available user review we could find for the radar detectors on our lineup. This included Amazon, Crutchfield and other consumer websites. We recorded the total number of reviews, including the scale at which the user rated the product. Then we analyzed the ratio of good-to-bad reviews with consideration as to the total number of reviews. A product with more reviews is generally considered more popular. We also talked to expert hobbyists to get their opinions on performance. Once compiled, we scored and graded each radar detector performance.
While the more affordable detectors are the most popular, many of the reviews mentioned issues with false alerts. However, the more expensive radar detectors had a higher rate of positive reviews.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Radar Detector?
The best radar detectors combine excellent range and accuracy with control and alert features that keep you aware of your driving habits. A radar detector can help make you a safer driver by ensuring you maintain a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your driving habits. Below are some of the criteria we evaluated in our review.
Maintaining a keen awareness of your surroundings is critical to safe driving, which is why alert features are so important. The best radar detectors don't just alert you to lasers and radar bands, they also apprise you of other traffic threats like speed cameras, red-light cameras and speed traps. The top radar detectors can also alert you when you've exceeded a set speed. Some radar detectors with GPS capabilities are able to tell you if you're exceeding the speed limit, which can be very handy in areas where you haven't seen a speed limit sign.
You should expect to receive alerts for safety warnings that involve accidents, road hazards and severe weather. Your radar detector should also alert you to multiple threats at a time. For example, if you approach a speed camera and an active police radar gun, you should receive an alert for both threats at the same time.
The best radar detectors have built-in GPS and Bluetooth capabilities. These features open up the detection and alert capabilities far beyond radar detection. With GPS, you can receive information about speed limits and marked threat locations. With Bluetooth, the device can integrate with an app that allows you to share traffic details with other users. Radar detector mobile apps also integrate spatial awareness to your alerts by placing the alert within a GPS map on your phone's screen.
Another important control feature is the auto-learn processor, which relies on GPS, either through a built-in GPS or connection with your phone through the app. With the mark-location feature, you can record specific coordinates you've driven past that might be a speed trap or a dangerous intersection. Mobile apps provide a community threat-sharing feature that allows you to receive active reports from other users in real time.
Help & Support
Most radar detectors have a one-year warranty. The best radar detector manufacturers go out of their way to help you through phone, email and live chat. You should also consider the educational resources the manufacturer provides. These allow you to get the most out of your radar detector and learn tips for avoiding tickets. These resources include manuals, FAQs pages, user forums and tutorials.
Radar Detectors: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The Escort Max 360 earned the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award because it has a high performance grade plus it has comprehensive alert and control features. It's the only device in our review that will tell you which direction the alert is coming from directly from the device. It also features an over-speed alert, built-in GPS and Bluetooth so you can use the Escort Live app. The Escort Passport Max2 earned our Silver Award much for the same reason, with the only significant difference being that it doesn't have directional alerts.
Escort Passport 9500ix rounds out the top with the Bronze Award. It received an A- in our performance evaluation and has a built-in GPS like the other Escort models above. It can also integrate with the Escort Live app with the Escort SmartCord, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth.
Speeding is dangerous and irresponsible. A radar detector is not an excuse to break the law by avoiding law enforcement, but it is a great tool to help you stay alert to your driving habits. With a radar detector, you won't just save money from traffic fines and insurance – you'll be safe. To learn more, read our articles on radar detectors and other home electronics.