The best radar detector for coping with red light, speed cameras—and false alarms?
by Craig Peterson
Last updated 2013
"...best GPS radar detector on the planet"
Exceptional radar range
Plug 'n play operation
Near-zero false alarms
Extensive feature set
No sooner had the GPS-enabled radar detector arrived than the thorny question "which is the best radar detector?" became vastly more difficult to answer.
Three manufacturers offer GPS-enabled radar detectors, most of them less expensive than the Escort Passport 9500ix and its clone, the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500. These include the Cobra XRS R10G and its electronic twin, the Cobra XRS 9970G ($389.95 MSRP, usually around $290 street price). Like many, we were curious if the lower-priced models can compete with the Escort Passport 9500ix.
To find out, we gathered up a variety of contenders and logged miles with each, performance-testing them as well. (The test included non-GPS models for comparison' sake.) Among the GPS models we found significant differences in appearance, utility and performance, including their ability to protect from red light cameras and false alarms.
Unlike the competitors', the top-mounted controls of the Escort 9500ix are backlit in soft blue, making them easy to find at night. The standard Smart Cord combines a control/display module with the power plug. A blue status LED glows to verify that the unit is powered-up and ready. An amber LED flashes during alerts. There's also a mute button that doubles as manual control for the Mark Location feature.
During an alert a double-tap allows a nuisance signal to be locked out manually, adding it to the database. (The Escort 9500ix also does this automatically with its exclusive AutoLearn feature. When not alerting, pressing the button adds a location to the database, along with the choice of four types of location tags to later identify the type of threat.
Watch the Escort 9500ix in action as it spots red light cameras and identifies, then locks-out spurious signals automatically.
The Cobras permit the user to add a location to the database and will subsequently issue a generic User Location alert at these coordinates. However, it's up to the user to remember the location's significance: there's no way to denote whether it was a red light or speed camera, a speed trap or another threat. In contrast, the Escort 9500ix allows a location to be tagged "red light camera", "speed camera", "speed trap" or a rather non-specific "other". No guessing about what you're up against the next time you drive past the location.
Unfortunately, the Cobras can't tell the difference. Approach any type of photo enforcement camera and they produce the same
alert: "Photo Enforcement Area". This generic warning is sufficient, but a more detailed description would help the driver formulate the appropriate response.
For example, a red light camera wouldn't seem to pose a threat if you don't plan to run the red. But many are set to Speed on Green, functioning as full-time speed traps. Cruise past at extralegal speed and you're toast. Cameras can also monitor permissive left turns and right turns on red, triggered by the merest hint of forward movement if the vehicle doesn't come to a complete stop first. The Escort Passport 9500ix identifies and warns of these threats.
The Escort 9500ix trumps Cobra GPS models through its directional alerts. Many intersections have only one or two approaches of one street monitored by cameras, making them a non-issue if you're cruising on the cross street. The Escort 9500ix (and the Beltronics Pro 500) knows which approaches are covered and alerts only when a camera genuinely poses a threat. The Cobras alert regardless of one's direction of travel, generating needless alerts in response.
The Escort 9500ix and BEL Pro 500 vary camera-warning distance according to vehicle speed. Below about 45 mph, camera alerts begin at 400 feet; at higher speeds the distance rises to 800 feet. Both distances offer enough advance warning but without unduly pestering the driver with lingering alerts.
Cobra has a different alert strategy. Like the BEL and Escort, the onset of an alert varies according to vehicle speed. But its arrive at a far greater distance At 65 mph and above, visual alerts begin at an average of 2,900 feet. When the distance closes to about 1,200 feet an audible alert sounds. Visual alerts begin at about 2,400 feet at 55 mph, 1,900 feet at 45 mph and 1,150 feet at 35 mph; audible alerts begin at the same 1,200-foot mark regardless of speed. These distances are about triple what's needed and make for alerts that seem to last forever.
We also noted that Cobras frequently alert to distant cameras on surface streets, although we were driving on a camera-free urban freeway at the time. They have one other disquieting habit: alerting to nonexistent Safety Alert threats. For example, in our infamous First Annual, Every-Other-Year XX Radar Rally, one team's Cobra blurted a warning of an imminent collision with a train bearing down on them. But the nearest tracks were miles away.
The ability of the Escort 9500ix to mark and lock out nuisance signals, coupled with speed-variable radar sensitivity, creates a supernaturally quiet radar detector and gives this GPS-enabled radar detector a significant competitive advantage. We've quantified that value previously, once in an urban false alarm test, the other in a freeway-trip false alarm test, and can only say that the difference must be experienced to be appreciated.
The camera-alert strategy of the Escort Passport 9500ix is identical to that of its electronic clone, the BEL Pro 500. Warning distance to the camera varies according to vehicle speed and it
accurately spells out the type of camera: red light or speed. If a red light camera is set to Speed on Green and also monitors speed, the detector warns, "Caution, Speed
Camera Ahead." Distance to the camera is displayed in 100-foot increments, counting down until mid-intersection when a female voice announces, "You have reached your marked location." (Tones rather than voice alerts are a menu option.)
Escort has a stranglehold on much of the key GPS-radar detector technology. This leaves competitors nibbling at the fringes of the market, unable to fully capitalize on the advantages offered by GPS. These models don't offer an integral GPS receiver, for instance. To avoid patent infringement they must use an external antenna, usually a thumb-sized module with a mini-A USB connector that plugs into the side of the detector. In the Cobras this module not infrequently falls off when the detector is handled, forcing the driver to keep a sharp eye on it.
Low-speed camera alerts begin at about 400 feet. The warning distance rises in proportion to vehicle speed, giving enough warning but without being unduly intrusive.
An additional example is something Escort calls TrueLock, the ability to lock-out a signal based on its GPS coordinates and frequency. Yet another is variable-speed radar sensitivity where the detector automatically dials back sensitivity at low speeds, knowing that a driver trapped in rush-hour traffic doesn't need eight miles of radar-detection range. This lowered sensitivity means fewer alarms induced by the ubiquitous radar-controlled automatic door opener, not to mention the local oscillator of a nearby radar detector. Combined, these features are the secret to the extraordinarily high resistance of the Escort Passport 9500ix to false alarms, particularly in town. In back-to-back comparisons with the Cobras, Escort's technology is clearly the more effective.
The advantage also extends to its performance against radar. In two different tests the Escort Passport 9500ix exhibited class-leading performance at each of our test sites on the critical K and Ka bands. These include the comparatively easy Straightaway Test, a 5.4-mile-long straightaway site. It's composed of a pair of long straight sections of county road that are offset by 0.5 mile and run parallel to one another. The test isn't particularly difficult for a well-designed detector although some still experience difficulties here.
Like most Escort and BEL radar detectors, the Passport 9500ix is compatible with Escort Live user network, which combines Bluetooth, a smartphone app and the Internet to warn of threats ahead.
The Escort Passport 9500ix proved equally adept at detecting the most widely used types of photo radar, leading the pack in one test and trailing the BEL Pro 500 by a few feet in the other. Along with the BEL Pro 500, it proved to be the only GPS-enabled, windshield-mount radar detector we've tested that offers reliable protection from Redflex photo radar vans, an increasingly common threat. In contrast, we were able to motor past these speed vans without either of the Cobras alerting to them.
We also checked the ability of the Escort 9500ix to outwit the radar detector detector (RDD) used in Virginia and other areas where detector use is forbidden. We squared off against both a Spectre (Stalcar) Mk IV and the latest Mk IV Elite and found that the former could spot the Escort Passport 9500ix from no more more than 40 feet away under ideal conditions. But the Mk IV Elite has been specially tuned to detect the Escort/BEL twins and can do so at ranges up to 450 feet. Drivers at risk may opt for a 100-percent-undetectable radar detector like the Beltronics (BEL) STi Magnum or its twin, the Escort Redline.
The Escort Passport 9500ix also benefits from its Defender camera location database, which our first-ever review and comparison test proved to be the most reliable and accurate available. While Cobra's Aura camera database proved to be 66 percent accurate, it still missed one camera in three. In contrast, the Escort database was 95 percent accurate, a notable achievement.
Like most Escort and BEL models, the Passport 9500ix is compatible with Escort Live, letting drivers benefit from early warnings of speedtraps and similar perils ahead.
This array of advantages—coupled with its superior sensitivity, user-friendly nature and freedom from false alarms—makes it the best GPS radar detector on the planet.