In order to accomplish your radio reception goal, it helps to have the right equipment. But it's also important to be prudent and conservative when purchasing electronics and accessories. I created this webpage to share with you tools and equipment that have improved my ability to receive radio broadcasts. I think these items might help you as well.
I own most of these products, and many of these products are substantially less expensive than comparable products sold elsewhere. I did not price check less expensive items when writing this guide; items may be available elsewhere for a lower price. At any rate, I hope this information increases your reception effectiveness while also saving you time and money. If you have a specific goal, I recommend that you ask others in your area what they use to accomplish the same goal—ideally borrowing their equipment to confirm that it works for you. I am happy to chat with you about strategies to receive more broadcasts.
Most of the links on this page link to Amazon product pages. If you are not currently an Amazon Prime member, you can sign up for an Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial, which will allow you to receive free two-day shipping on most purchases.
|Model||P25 Phase 1 & 2||DMR||NXDN||ProVoice||Style||DFS Quick Import||Remote Head||Firmware Updates|
P25, DMR, NXDN, and ProVoice columns: = Supported = Requires separate purchase for activation = Not Supported
Style: = Portable–handheld radio = Mobile–desktop radio
DFS Quick Import: = Digital Frequency Search Quick Import provides data formatted for this scanner = DFS does not support this scanner
Remote head: = Mobile scanner with remote head = No remote head "N/A" = Not applicable to portable radios
Firmware Updates: = Firmware update applied via PC application = Firmware update copied to memory card, applied via radio (doesn't require PC connectivity during update)
Utilizing the proper antenna for the job can oftentimes allow you to successfully receive a broadcast you can't receive with your stock radio antenna. But don't get carried away... Many antennas are simply way too expensive for what they do. In fact, I encourage you to build your own antennas when possible. Here are a few that I recommend, along with recommended uses:
My favorite antenna is the ExpertPower 7.75" BNC Antenna.
Many of the digital radio frequencies on this website—especially the trunked systems—are in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands. This antenna is a great length for the UHF frequencies utilized by many radio systems.
The ExpertPower 7.75" is comparable to the RS 800 MHz antenna, yet it is less than 1/3 the price. In fact, I prefer this antenna over the RS 800 MHz: The ExpertPower is slightly longer than the RS800, which tunes better for the 700MHz and lower 800Mhz range (which is what is of interest) rather than the cellular bands in the upper 800 MHz range (which are a major source of interference).
The antenna is available with either a BNC or a SMA connector. They have a VHF model too, but I have not tested it.
Did you know that there are over 160,000 digital frequencies in the VHF range in the United States? That means that it is still important to have an antenna tuned to the VHF wavelength. I use the Valley Enterprises Replacement Scanner Antenna for that purpose while out and about.
The antenna is telescopic, so it is practical for handheld radio use and storage when not in use. Additionally, it rotates and swivels at the BNC male connector, making it good for base radios as well. Fully extended, the antenna is approximately a ¼ wave of the middle of the Land Mobile VHF High Band. You can adjust the length shorter to tune to UHF frequencies without needing a second antenna on hand.
If under $10, it’s good to buy a couple of these to have on hand.
I've had great results with the Phonetone 11db Outdoor Yagi. Use this at home (inside or out) to achieve higher gain in the direction of the transmitter, improving your signal to noise ratio. It can also help in simulcast areas by preferencing one tower and nulling others.
You'll need an appropriate adapter or pigtail to use with this antenna (Type N Male to whatever your receiver accepts). Click here for a Type N Male to BNC Male Adapter that should work for most applications.
The Hustler MRMBNC Magnetic Mount Scanner Antenna is a heavy duty and effective antenna. Use it on the road or at home to improve your reception.
The magnetic base is substantial—I’ve used it while driving on Texas State Tollway 130 (speed limit is 85 MPH…) with no problems. If you center the antenna on your roof or trunk, which I recommend for maximum performance, the coax cable might bang on the roof some (it is heavy coax), so you might want to secure the cable on long runs. Be mindful that use of a magnetic mount antenna could damage the paint finish on your vehicle.
It works well with both handheld and mobile radios. The whip is almost three feet long, so there is plenty to work with (and you can cut it down to your preferred tuning). I use one at home for omnidirectional VHF reception.
The following scanners are capable of receiving at least DMR and P25 digital radio. The following reviews are very succinct. Please feel free to email me at Justin@DigitalFrequencySearch.com for additional advice for selecting a scanner. Without knowing your goals and location, it would be impossible to issue blanket recommendations on a webpage. Therefore, all popular models are included below. When comparing prices, keep in mind that Uniden scanners require an additional purchase to activate DMR.
The Whistler TRX-1 is currently the only handheld scanner receiver capable of receiving all of the digital radio frequencies on this website. If you require NXDN reception, the TRX-1 and TRX-2 are your only options for a consumer radio scanner.
Digital frequencies can be imported form this website to EZ Scan (the TRX-1 programing software) in just a few steps.
Firmware updates require the scanner to be connected to a PC; firmware updates cause considerable frustration for some Whistler scanner owners. The scanner’s user interface consists of an elaborate menu system and a handful of shortcut keys.
The Uniden BCD436HP is a popular handheld radio scanner that scans P25 out of the box. It is also capable of receiving DMR; however, DMR activation requires a separate paid upgrade. The Uniden 436, 536, and 996P2 also have a paid upgrade to add EDACS ProVoice reception, which is not available on any other scanner.
Firmware updates are completed via the memory card after reboot, so updating is generally a smooth process.
Popular programming software includes Sentinel, which is provided with the scanner, and BuTel ARC536, which is a third-party program. Digital Frequency Search Quick Import provides frequencies in a format accepted by each of these programs.
The Whistler WS1080 and Whistler WS1088 are slightly older models, lacking NXDN capability. Otherwise, they are quite similar to the TRX1. The WS1080 does not have a numeric keypad, so direct frequency entry and character entry is more cumbersome. Both of these scanners receive P25 Phase 1 & 2 digital, as well as DMR.
For those not requiring NXDN reception, one of these scanners would provide a similar experience to the TRX1 but at a lower cost. I was not able to identify a good price for the WS1080—I would not pay more than $340 for the WS1080.
Be sure to check The Ham Station, recommended by Digital Frequency Search, for pricing of the TRX-2. They oftentimes have the best deal.
The Whistler TRX-2 is currently the only base–mobile scanner receiver capable of receiving all of the digital radio frequencies on this website. Digital frequencies can be imported form this website to EZ Scan (the TRX2 programing software) in just a few steps.
Firmware updates require the scanner to be connected to a PC; this can be frustrating if your scanner is mounted in a vehicle. Objects (frequencies or talkgroups) from various systems can be combined in custom made scanlists.
The Whistler mobile scanners have a unique “remote head,” which allows you to mount the display and keypad separately from the rest of the receiver.
The Uniden BCD536HP Bearcat is similar in operation to the Uniden BCD436HP. It natively supports P25 Phase 1 & 2; however, DMR activation must be purchased separately. Like the Uniden 436, there is a paid upgrade to add EDACS ProVoice reception to the 536.
The Uniden 536 has more keys and shortcuts compared to the TRX2. For instance, it offers an instant replay and allows you to hold on objects by system, department, or channel without entering a menu system. It includes a knob each for squelch control and volume.
Objects (frequencies or talkgroups) are organized primarily by system and department. For advanced operation, the 536 offers Wi-Fi capability.
Both models support P25 Phase 1 & 2 and DMR. The WS1098 has a full numeric keypad, while the WS1095 does not. If you don’t need NXDN, these can be an affordable option for a mobile digital radio scanner.
The Uniden BCD996P2 Digital Mobile TrunkTracker V Scanner is based on a solid and long-running line of scanners. Unlike the Whistler scanners, which are all very similar to each other, the Uniden 996P2 is substantially different from the Uniden 436 and 536 scanners. It is not programmed via Sentinel; however, there are third-party programming applications.
Digital Frequency Search Quick Import does not currently support this scanner.
The BCD996P2 comes with P25 Phase 1 & 2 support. DMR, along with ProVoice, may be individually activated through separate paid upgrades.
Please note: Many scanner dealers offer paid “programming” options for new scanners. These upcharges generally range from $35-$80 per county. I recommend against purchasing such add-ons. The dealer programmed configurations I’ve seen are not impressive, and it’s possible they are just doing a library import—something that takes just a few minutes. Instead, find someone who will truly customize your scanning configuration while also teaching you how to program the scanner yourself. Also, feel free to contact me for help programming your scanner.
Software radio offers an affordable and capable opportunity to receive digital radio frequencies. It can also be very educational, helping you to better understand digital radio systems and digital decoding technology.
The entry level software radio receivers are based off of a European television tuner dongle. These contain the Realtek RTL2832U demodulator. They are commonly referred to as “RTL SDRs.”
Be sure to buy only those with the Rafael Microelectronics R820T2 tuner (generally have a blue case), which is better than the older R820T models (generally have a black case).
The RTL SDRs are compatible with a number of software radio programs. Here are a few programs you might find useful:
Here are my picks for RTL SDR receivers:
The blue case RTL2832U R820T2 RLT SDRs will certainly get the job done. I have a couple handfuls of these, and I’ve never had any problems. They have a MCX (micro coaxial) connector, and they come with a small antenna.
The RTL SDR from this seller has faster shipping.
Alternatively, this RTL SDR has the best price I've found, but the shipping is slower.
The metal case RTL-SDR Blog RTL2832U R820T2 receiver costs about twice as much as the entry level blue case models, but it has a lot more to offer:
Note: The case of this dongle tends to get quite hot.
FlightAware Pro Stick ADS-B Receiver: This receiver isn’t the best for receiving digital radio frequencies, but it is great for receiving aircraft ADS-B broadcasts to track aircraft telemetry data. I recommend it, along with the FlightAware 1090MHx Band-pass SMA Filter for plane tracking.
You can stream your received data to a number of commercial plane tracking websites, such as FlightAware.
The newer version of the FlightAware Pro Stick has a built in band-pass filter. If you aren’t interested in testing with and without a filter, getting the combined version is a much better deal.
There are more expensive software radios available with features such as wider bandwidth; however, those devices are outside the scope of this review.
You’ll probably need a few adapters and pigtails to connect your software radio to your existing antennas. An adapter is a short fitting; a pigtail has a short segment of coax between the two connectors.
I generally try to bring each receiver to BNC female and each antenna to BNC male; however, in some applications I will use more efficient adapters if needed to reduce signal loss. Here is a list of a couple that might be what you need:
It’s certainly possible to have too many USB cables; however, having a couple of cables reserved for certain scanning applications can be useful:
Be sure to purchase high quality cables to avoid connection problems.
USB extension cables are often useful for software radio setups. This allows you to avoid congestion around your USB ports, and you can place the receivers in optimal locations for reception (e.g. near an antenna, in a window, or away from noisy monitors and cables). It is much better to use a longer USB cable than a longer length of coax. USB 2.0 cables should be adequate.
Powered USB Hub: RTL SDRs are relatively power hungry USB devices. If you don’t have enough USB ports on your PC, be sure to use an externally powered USB hub. If you use an unpowered hub, it is possible that your RLT SDRs will not work properly.
Most scanner receivers utilize either a SD card or a microSD card for programming and storage memory. Card failures cause frustration and can prevent your receiver from operating. I highly recommend keeping at least one spare memory card on hand, and make sure it is loaded with your latest programming information.
For the Uniden BCD436HP and BCD536HP, try the Transcend Information High Endurance microSD Card, which was recommended by Uniden’s scanner expert.
For Whistler scanners, I use the SanDisk 8GB MicroSDHC class 4 card with adapter. Lower speed memory cards tend to work better in the Whistler scanners; some of the fast modern cards do not work.
Note: Higher capacity cards increase the boot time for the scanner.
If you want to get a full sized SD card for your mobile Whistler instead of using the microSD to SD adapter, search for a Class 4 card that is 4 or 8 GB.
I highly recommend the Pelican 0915 Black SD Memory Card Protective Case. It’s a bit pricier than the entry level options, but it’s a solid and quality case.
It stores 12 SD cards and 6 microSD cards (if you have microSD to SD adapters, you can store more microSD cards—in fact, for compatibility, it’s good to always have such an adapter on hand). The cards are held securely, and they are easy to get in and out.
It’s too easy to misplace a small memory card—don’t lose your valuable data—get one of these Pelican Cases today.
A simple pencil box can easily organize a mess of antennas, cables, software radios, and other accessories. A pencil box is also useful for traveling.
If you want to be extra prepared, you can easily line one with metal foil to create a Faraday cage that will help protect your equipment in the event of abnormal electromagnetic radiation.
Radio receivers are a considerable investment, so it’s worth a few dollars to protect the display from scratches and scuffs. Some scanner displays scratch very easily; don’t wait until it is too late. I’ve had good luck with the Pointmobl Screen Protector 5 Pack cut to size screen protectors.
You can also use them on digital cameras, dash cams, GPS displays, calculators, and other electronic devices.
The Monoprice Multimedia Desktop Stand is a glass shelf with 4 metal cylinder feet, available in clear or black and several different sizes. I think they are awesome (I have three).
You can use them to raise your computer monitor height, creating room for storage and radio receivers (*** note: monitors create a lot of RF noise, if the digital frequencies you are trying to receive are marginal or weak, I do not recommend placing a receiver near a monitor or monitor data cable). You can also stack multiple shelves on top of each other, creating a sleek and modern looking stand for multiple desktop radios.
I suggest putting felt furniture pad stickers on the bottom of the feet.
Scanners, especially if playing non-stop, consume batteries fast. I recommend using Panasonic Eneloop 2100 Cycle Ni-MH Pre-Charged Rechargeable Batteries in your portable scanner. When I am at home or in the car, I have my Whistler handheld scanner's Eneloop batteries charging within the scanner (while the scanner is on), keeping the scanner topped off and ready to go at all times.
In case of emergency, it is good to have several sets of fully charged batteries available.
I recommend having a portable USB charging pack for portable radios and phones. It's certainly possible to swap out scanner batteries, but it's preferable to be able to top them off and keep scanning while on the go. You might try something like the RAVPower External Battery Pack 16750mAh 4.5A Dual USB Output Power Bank with iSmart Technology, which should keep your receiver going during extended times without power.
If you have solar chargers, a battery pack is a good reservoir, eliminating the need to keep the radio tied down.
A USB charging station, like the RAVPower 60W 12A 6-Port USB Charging Station with iSmart Technology, is a must have for those with lots of portable electronic devices. It allows you to place the USB ports in a convenient (or out of sight) location instead of being tied to a wall outlet.
It's much better than leaving a computer on only for the purpose of providing power to USB devices.
The Sony MDRV6 Studio Monitor Headphones are a time tested standard for high quality headphones. They are extremely comfortable with adjustability, flexibility, and cushioning. There is a long coiled cord with a 3.5 mm male connector.
The headphones are low impedance and have true frequency response. Note: Since these headphones have low impedance and are high quality, any noise, shorts, or other problems in your audio circuit will become more noticeable.
Be cautious when evaluating potential purchases based off of website reviews: A substantial portion of website reviews are from individuals who received free or reduced price items in exchange for a review. Such schemes are vulnerable to bias. With the exception of the scanners and a few other items listed, I own all of the products I’ve recommend and linked to, and I paid full (or sale) price for the item—I don’t participate in programs that I consider unethical.
Additionally, note that some websites' rating of products can be misleading (for instance, the rating might not be a basic average of the reviews). Keep in mind that on some websites the majority of reviewers can give a product the lowest rating, yet the product still achieves a positive rating overall.
Finally, when ordering products online, you might experience shipping problems, usually at the fault of the local distribution center or last-mile driver; for this reason, please be cautious when ordering items guaranteed or estimated to arrive before an important deadline.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.