Choosing the Best CB Radio
The most important thing to understand when choosing a radio is that all CBs, regardless of their price, are limited to 4 watts of transmission power by the FCC. This means that a $50 bare-bones CB radio and a $200 chrome-plated CB radio with every feature imaginable will have exactly the same transmission power. Although a radio can be “peaked and tuned," a process that increase a CB’s performance, all CB radios will have the same transmission power out of the box. There are a number of CB radio manufacturers, some of the more popular ones being Cobra, Galaxy, Uniden and Midland.
What primarily differentiates CB radios from each other is their features, not their output strength. CB radios come with a variety of features, the most popular of which we’ve outlined below:
- Squelch Control - Sets the break-point at which a CB radio outputs a signal. In effect, it keeps the operator from constantly having to listen to static and only activates the speaker when a transmission is received. This is a standard feature and is included with nearly every CB radio sold.
- RF Gain - Allows the operator to filter the type of transmission a CB radio receives based on signal strength. It’s useful to block out faint transmissions to eliminate background noise when talking with someone with a strong signal. This feature can also be used to pull-in and better hear weak signals.
- PA Capability - Allows use of the CB radio and microphone as a transmitter for a public address system. This requires a PA horn (usually not included) that can be mounted under the hood or on top of the vehicle.
- Automatic Noise Limited (ANL) - Filters out static, engine noise and other interference from the reception signal to improve reception sound quality.
- Weather Capabilities - CB radios with this feature have the ability to access local NOAA radio stations for real-time weather reports and updates.
- Instant Channel 9 & 19 - The ability to quickly jump to two of the most popular channels: Channel 9 (emergency) and Channel 19 (highway/truckers).
- Nightwatch and/or Backlit Displays - Several higher-priced models include a backlit radio display for convenient operation at night. This is an invaluable feature if a radio will be used extensively at night or in dark conditions.
When choosing a CB radio and its corresponding features, it’s important to focus on how and where the CB will be used. Specific vehicle owners tend to want different features in a CB radio:
- Pick-Up CB Radios : Most pick-up trucks are generally large enough to accommodate mid- to full-sized CB radios, although radios of all sizes are commonly used. An ANL is an important feature to have, as engine noise can be an issue in larger trucks.
- Car CB Radios : Most cars have limited cab space, and the vehicle is often used for day-to-day life. This makes radio size an important factor in passenger vehicles. Small radios that take up little space, as well as radios that don't require intrusive and complicated installations, are popular with passenger vehicle owners. CB radios such as the Midland 75-822 are popular with car owners.
- Semi-Truck CB Radios : Professional drivers tend to want full-featured CB radios as they are a crucial communication tool on the road. As such, a good after-market radio “peak and tune” to boost performance is often important. The Cobra 29 LTD series is one of the most popular CB radios among professional drivers.
- Jeep CB Radios: Off-road drivers usually have smaller vehicle cabs and tend to choose compact CB radios due to space constraints. The Uniden 510XL and Cobra 75 WX ST are two popular choices with off-road drivers due to their compact size.
- RV CB Radios : RV owners traditionally have ample cab space that can accommodate large CB radios. Popular features with RV owners include weather channel capabilities and front-mounted speakers for convenient in-dash installation. The Cobra 18 WX ST II and Uniden Bearcat 538W are popular with RV owners.
As you can see, a wide range of features are available for CB radios. Only the individual can determine which set of features best suits his or her needs. As all CB radios are limited to 4 watts of output, the biggest factor determining radio performance is the antenna. A cheap radio and correctly installed quality CB antenna will perform infinitely better than an expensive radio and a poor antenna setup. Before selecting a CB antenna, we recommend reading our article Choosing the Best CB Antenna to help you find one best suited for your needs.