How to Choose a Crank Radio?
The top performers in our review are the Eton FRX5, the Gold Award winner; the Eton Scorpion II, the Silver Award winner; and the Sangean MMR88, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a crank radio to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Nobody buys a crank radio to just 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.
Imagine this scenario: It's the middle of the night. The power goes out. There's a tremendous thunderstorm outside, and the wind is blowing so hard that it sounds like your roof is about to tear from the joists and go sailing down the street like a kite. Is there a tornado heading toward you? Do you live in a flash flood zone? Has a hurricane made landfall? With a crank radio, you can know what's going on, whether it's an earthquake, hurricane, flash flood, tornado or other environmental emergency. You’re able to stay informed, making it easier for people to find you if you're stranded or lost.
Crank radios are used in two ways – for emergency preparedness and backcountry camping. In both cases, a contingency plan for power is important. If the disposable batteries die, you need to have another option available to power the radio. To this purpose, every emergency radio in our review has a dynamo crank generator that creates electricity by spinning a coil of wire around a magnet. The concept is similar to wind, steam and water turbines, except scaled down so your hand is the moving force. The hand crank ensures the emergency radio always has access to power, even if it's been in an emergency preparedness pack for years.
The best crank radios are also tools of survival, with features that help you when you're lost or stranded. They can have sirens, compasses, flashlights, thermometers and more. For more information, check out our articles on crank radios and other outdoor gear.
Crank Radios: What We Tested, What We Found
To find the best crank radio, we tested three major features – the rechargeable battery, reception and the speaker. The dynamo hand crank is the radio's lifeline, so it needs to be efficient at recharging the battery. The reception is your lifeline to the outside world, and you need to be able to hear weather alerts clearly, even in remote areas. The speaker is your lifeline for help. Not only does it project weather alerts, but it also alerts people to your location so you can receive help if necessary.
To test the dynamo crank, we drained each radio’s batteries so that we were starting with a dead battery. Once the battery was fully drained, we spun the crank for two minutes to the clip of a metronome clicking off at 120 beats per minute. This ensured each hand crank was spun at the same rate. (The industry recommendation is 120 revolutions per minute.)
After spinning the crank for two minutes, we turned on the radios with the volume at the loudest setting. We set a timer the moment the radio turned on, and it ran until the battery died again. This allowed us to measure how much battery life each radio generated during a standard amount of cranking.
We performed this two-minute crank test five times with each radio to create an average. With most radios, that two minutes of cranking provided between three and five minutes of battery life. The lowest performing radios even fell below the two-minute mark, which means that you actually have to exert more time and energy cranking the radio 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 were going to test how long it would take to fully charge each radio using the hand crank. However, this proved to be an unrealistic endeavor. Even with the top-rated Eton FRX5, we couldn'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 one didn't reach a full charge after more than three days.
After we timed how long each weather radio took to fully charge, we took the next natural step and tested battery life by playing each radio at full volume until it died. We found that the recharge time didn't always correlate with the battery life – just because a radio took a long time to charge didn't mean that it had a long battery life.
Long-Range Reception Quality
Since one of the main purposes of a crank radio is to pick up radio frequencies for emergency purposes, we tested the quality of each radio's reception from several locations, both in the city and backcountry. In each spot, we tested how well the radio picked up AM daytime, AM nighttime and general FM radio transmission.
First, we found that the NOAA weather band reception was equally good with every radio in both city and backcountry settings. We also discovered that the quality of each radio's AM reception during the day was no different from its AM reception at night, even though the quality of the AM signal changed 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 the clarity. We tested each radio on the same day within the same block of time. We also tested each radio in the same location so the environment didn't influence the reception.
Once we performed this test on all the AM and FM stations in our city, we drove to a remote area in the mountains and repeated it to gather information about backcountry reception. In both city and backcountry conditions, we found a significant disparity in the reception quality of AM and FM stations. Several of the crank radios had distortion on many of the stations, 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 test the maximum volume, we used a decibel meter to measure the volume 1 meter from the speaker. The loudest radio produced 90.3 dB of volume, 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.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Crank Radio: What Else to Look For
In its most basic form, a crank radio is a simple handheld device powered by a hand crank that receives AM and FM radio signals. However, the best crank radios are more than an AM and FM radio – they are survival tools. This means 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 weather radio is capable of picking up all seven NOAA weather alert stations. However, each station is geographically dependent, so you can only pick up one station at a time, depending on where you are. The stations provide warnings for severe weather like tornados, hurricanes and flash floods, but the geographical area of each station is large enough that you can receive an alert for severe weather that's states away. As such, you should consider an emergency radio with SAME technology. With SAME, you enter your zip code into the device and it alerts you to weather and environmental conditions applicable to your county.
You should look for survival features like flashlights, sirens, compasses, dog whistles and mobile device charging. Every advantage you can gain when you're in a survival situation is critical. These features allow you to see in the dark, find your bearings if you're lost, attract the attention of help and stay connected to your phone.
Since emergency radios are designed to help you survive an emergency, they need to be capable of surviving rough conditions. The best emergency radios can withstand bumps, drops and jostles. They're also water-resistant. Your radio needs to be able to handle the weather, especially while you're camping.
Help & Support
When working with any electronic device, we like to look into the help and support the manufacturer offers. That way, even after you make your purchase, you can stay informed and receive the support you need if something goes amiss. The services we looked into include email and phone contacts, FAQs pages, and user forums.
Crank Radios: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The best crank radio is the Eton FRX5. It 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. The Eton Scorpion II also proved to have an excellent hand crank and battery life. 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, water-resistant casing and excellent reception, 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 should 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 stations you want. The casing is made of flimsy plastic, but 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.
Whether you're looking for a way to stay connected during a tornado warning or you simply want some tunes at the beach, a crank radio is a great device to have. Adding one to your survival kit or your camping gear helps ensure you are never caught unprepared.