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Crank Radio Review
How to Choose a Crank Radio?
To find the best crank radio, we tested three major features – the rechargeable battery, reception and the speaker. We tested reception quality in two locations: in town near our office in Ogden, Utah and on a backcountry hiking trail in the Wasatch mountains that’s outside the range of cellular service. Based on our research, we believe the best crank radio is the Eton FRX5-BT. This radio not only had the most efficient hand crank in our tests, but the charge time and battery life are also among the best available. It's one of the few radios with SAME alerts and the only radio in our test group with Bluetooth connectivity.
The Eton Scorpion II also has an excellent hand crank and battery life, and while the Sangean MMR88 only received average scores in our battery and reception tests, its audio quality is excellent. Each of these emergency radios has comprehensive power options and a water-resistant casing, so they are durable enough to handle your backcountry hikes.
If you're just looking for a simple weather radio to pack in your emergency survival kit, then you may want to consider the WeatherX WR383R. It costs less than $25 and receives all the weather band stations. However, the overall reception quality isn't great, and the receiver dial isn't digital, which makes it more difficult to find the station you want. Also, its casing is made of flimsy plastic. Still, it has a decent hand crank and a solar panel. If you just need a radio to keep you informed, it'll get the job done.
Crank Radios: Why Do I Need One?
Nobody buys a crank radio just to listen to the local radio station while pulling weeds in the garden. You buy a crank radio for the same reason you buy a 72-hour kit, a compass and waterproof lighters – emergency preparedness. That said, they are also useful for backcountry camping.
In both cases, a contingency plan for power is important. If the disposable batteries die, you need to have another way to power the radio. As such, every emergency radio we reviewed has a dynamo crank generator that creates electricity by spinning a coil of wire around a magnet. This is similar to wind, steam and water turbines, except scaled down so your hand is the moving force. The hand crank ensures the radio always has power, even if it's been in an emergency preparedness pack for years.
Crank Radios: What We Tested, What We Found
The dynamo hand crank is the radio's lifeline, so it needs to be efficient at recharging the battery. Likewise, the reception is your connection to the outside world, and you need to be able to hear weather alerts clearly, even in remote areas. Speaker performance is also important – not only does it project weather alerts, but it also alerts people to your location if you need help.
To test each radio’s dynamo crank, we drained its batteries completely. Once the batteries were dead, we spun the crank for two minutes to the clip of a metronome clicking at 120 beats per minute – the industry-recommended speed. This ensured we spun each hand crank at the same rate.
After spinning the crank, we turned on the radio with the volume at its loudest setting. We started timing the moment the radio turned on and ended when the battery died again.
We performed this two-minute crank test five times on each radio to create an average. With most radios, two minutes of cranking generated between three and five minutes of battery life. The worst-performing radios fell below the two-minute mark, which means you have to exert more time and energy cranking them than you get in return. However, the best crank radio generated an average of 13 minutes and 21 seconds of battery life, which was almost five minutes more than the second most efficient hand crank.
Initially, we planned to test how long it takes to fully charge each radio using the hand crank. However, this proved to be an unrealistic endeavor. Even with the top-rated Eton FRX5-BT, we didn’t reach the second bar on the battery meter after two hours of spinning the crank. Instead, we decided to test how long it took the radios to charge when plugged into a direct current.
Most of the emergency radios fully charged in between four and six hours. However, several reached full bars after just a few hours, and on the other end, one didn't reach a full charge after more than three days.
After we timed how long it took to fully charge each weather radio, we took the next natural step and tested its total battery life. To do so, we played each radio at full volume until it died again. We found that the time it takes to recharge the battery doesn't always correlate with how long it lasts – just because a radio took a long time to charge, it doesn’t mean it has a long battery life.
Backcountry Reception Quality
Since one of the main reasons people use crank radios is to pick up radio frequencies during emergencies, we tested the quality of each one's reception in several locations, both in the city and the backcountry. In each spot, we tested how well the radio picked up AM daytime, AM nighttime and general FM radio transmission.
We found that NOAA weather band reception was equally good on every radio in both the city and the backcountry. We also discovered that the quality of each radio's AM reception during the day was no different than at night, even though the quality of the AM signals changes because of atmospheric conditions. Basically, if a radio scored high marks during the day, it also scored high marks at night, and vice versa.
To test the reception, we simply scrolled through each radio station in our area and scored its clarity. We tested all the radios at the same location so that environmental differences didn't skew our results. After testing in the city, we drove to a remote location in the mountains and repeated the process to gather information about backcountry reception. In both city and backcountry conditions, we found a significant disparity in AM and FM reception quality between the radios – several of them had distortion, even in the city, while the best weather radios were consistently clear.
Maximum Volume Level
Crank radios won’t blow you away when you turn the volume to the max. Still, a loud speaker is an important survival tool. To measure volume, we placed a decibel meter 1 meter from the speaker. The loudest radio produced 90.3 dB of sound, which is comparable to an average stereo system. For comparison, the quietest weather radio only reached 76.2 dB, which is about as loud as a normal conversation. Most radios measured between 80 dB and 84 dB, which is about as loud as city traffic.
Crank Radio: What Else to Look For
In its most basic form, a crank radio is a simple handheld device that receives AM and FM signals and can be powered by a hand crank. However, the best models are more than that – they are survival tools. You should look for a crank radio that has as many survival features as possible, is built to be durable and comes from a manufacturer with great support.
Every crank radio can pick up all seven NOAA weather alert stations. However, each station is geographically dependent, so you can only pick up one at a time, depending on where you are. The stations provide warnings for severe weather like tornados, hurricanes and flash floods, but they cover large enough areas that you can receive an alert for conditions several states away.
As such, you should consider an emergency radio with SAME technology. With SAME, you enter your zip code and the radio alerts you to weather and environmental conditions in your county.
You should look for a radio with survival features like a flashlight, siren, compass, dog whistle and a mobile device charger. Every tool you have available in a survival situation is important, and these features can help you find your way and get your bearings if you're lost. They also attract attention if you need help and keep you connected to your phone.
Since these radios are designed to help you survive an emergency, they need to be able to withstand rough conditions. The best models are water-resistant and can survive bumps, drops and jostles. Your radio needs to be able to handle the weather, especially while you're camping.
Help & Support
When we evaluate any electronic device, we like to look in to the kinds of help and support the manufacturer offers. After you purchase your radio, it’s important to have access to help if something goes amiss. The manufacturers we tested have a combination of email and phone support, FAQs pages, and user forums.