Beltronics (BEL) STi Magnum, the world's first undetectable high-performance radar
Most discussions about radar detectors eventually get around to the question: What's the best radar detector?
Most new owners are thrilled when their detector goes off before a radar-equipped cruiser pops into view.
But on other occasions the warning inexplicably is too late to be useful. And they're
baffled by frequent K- and Ka-band false
alerts when there isn't a police radar within 30 miles. Eventually they upgrade, figuring: If it's the most expensive,
it must deliver the best protection, right?
Not necessarily. If you happen to pick a model that's lousy at detecting POP-mode radar, for instance, you'll need
divine intervention to sneak past some state highway patrols unscathed.
For those prepared to spend serious money for radar protection, I gathered up two of the pricier
radar detectors on the market, the $399 Valentine One (or V1), and the $469 BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum (previously called STi Driver). Then I ran them
through my usual battery of tests. Go directly to the review summary.
For a comparison I fitted the Valentine One with optional accessories to match some of the features
standard on its competitor, the BEL STi Magnum. So equipped, it can cost up to $540. (Value shoppers can look elsewhere; neither detector is sold at a discount.)
To mimic two of the BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum's standard features--audio output jack and the Smart Cord's integral display/control module--two optional Valentine One accessories are required: the $49 remote audio adapter (left) and the $39 concealed display.
Although I have been testing radar detectors since 1987, BEL's claim of long-range supremacy brought up a question I've never been able to
answer. Nor has anyone else: Given unrestricted room, how far away can a super-premium detector
spot radar? My rural Colorado test site, used for 16 years, is absolutely straight, nearly level and almost 8 miles in
length. But its farthest point is on a slight rise, and the next-higher rise behind it is an additional three miles away.
Not surprising, even the best detectors I've tested there have never exceeded 40,000 feet of range.
What I needed for this test was a new radar detector test site. And it had to meet my usual criteria. One
crucial item: the test site had to be devoid of traffic and nearby metallic structures--especially power lines, fences
and buildings. These can radically inflate a radar detector's ability to pick up distant radar signals.
Microwave-frequency radio signals go nuts when they encounter a tangle of metallic spaghetti like this. As an
IPTM-certified police radar instructor, I routinely warn students about this phenomenon. And every police radar gun
operator manual also strongly advises against operating the devices anywhere near power lines or large,
stationary reflective objects.
The Test Site
We ended up in far western Arizona on a 13-mile stretch of perfectly straight, almost completely level roadway.
Using both hand-held and vehicle-installed GPS units and double-checking our stats with Google Earth, we
recorded elevation readings at 1,000-foot intervals along the entire length, finding no more than a few hundred feet
of elevation deviation from beginning to end.
In the interest of fairness, it's important to note that the farthest point on the test road was elevated by a few
hundred feet in comparison to the location of the radar vehicle, parked on the shoulder some 12 miles away. Once
the target car descended that tiny hill, the remainder of the course differed in elevation by no more than a few dozen
feet, marked by imperceptible high points in the roadway.
Since radar reception is largely point-to-point (microwaves don't go around curves or over hills very well), even a
1 or 2 dB (decibel, the unit of measurement used to gauge a
sensitivity) difference in sensitivity can
potentially result in significant range variations.
Our Curve Test Site separates the high-performance radar detectors from the wannabes. With the radar vehicle concealed at the bottom of a
plunging S-curve, target speeds appear at the instant the vehicle pops into view. Without a super-sensitive radar detector, there's no
Another important point: radar detectors are built to meet tolerance specs in sensitivity. So long as they meet minimum requirements, they're accepted by the QC guys and shipped. The spread in tolerances is a fact of life; component
suppliers themselves have similar standards and components critical in determining a detector's sensitivity always vary slightly in performance. Tolerances could be tighter but now we're talking military-spec quality, the reason why anything
marked "mil-spec" is always more expensive, usually by an order of magnitude. But we're talking about consumer electronics selling for under five C-notes.
My point is this: it's extremely rare for two detectors from the same manufacturer to have identical sensitivity,
a.k.a performance. One or both might have sensitivity at the upper end of the scale. But it's more likely that one will do
better than the other. And sometimes both are at the low end. There's no way to tell until they're field tested. And
that's precisely why it's never wise to compare test results from different tests, even if the location is the same, the radar antennas are aligned exactly the same, even
the vehicles are the same. Return another day with different samples of the same models and the
results from a second test can look quite different. It's all in the luck of the draw.
Some may roll their eyes at all this effort to nail down absolute maximum range. What possible difference does it make, they ask, if maximum range is
40,000 feet (7.58 miles) or 70,000 feet (13.25 miles)? Isn't one mile or more perfectly adequate, given that police radar is typically used from a distance of well
under 1,000 feet?
Why is long radar-detection range so crucial? Watch how instant-on radar easily defeats radar detectors of average performance.
The short answer: yes. At least in a perfect
world, but the world of electronic
countermeasures is far from perfect. That's why the crew and I also tested the BEL STi Magnum and Valentine One at our usual Curve Test Site in the open desert northwest of Phoenix. This location provides the ultimate real-world test.
The cruiser is hunkered down in a plunging S-curve, its radar aimed uphill and sharply away from the target's
direction of travel. Invisible until the last moment, it picks off vehicles 650 feet away in mid-curve. I knew from previous tests that eight miles of range would shrink
here to a few thousand feet at most. At this site many detectors, even some high-priced brands,
frequently fail to alert until well after the radar has already locked-in a speed.
Here's another reason why long range is important: Not 15 miles north of our western Arizona test site, last year I got
my first radar ticket in 15 years. (Dismissed in court.) It was night, traffic was light, and there was no advance warning
that the trooper I was about to meet had been using his instant-on Ka-band radar against other targets up ahead. A
radar detector with greater range might well have picked up those faint signals and warned me of his presence. To learn more, watch the video at right and see how radar works in the real world.
How I Rated Them
I rated these detectors by awarding points, with a total of 200 possible: 140 for radar performance and 20
maximum points each for features, ergonomics and resistance to false alarms. Radar points were weighted: X band:
5 points, K band: 20 points. I tested against all three of the commonly used Ka-band frequencies, each of which had a
maximum of 15 points, giving Ka band a total of 45 points. Radar points were totaled from their performances from the two test sites. Here's what I found.
The Valentine One celebrated its 21st birthday in 2012--a record in an industry where the average model's lifespan is measured in months. It's received occasional revisions and a few added features--laser
detection, for example, in the early 1990s--and some updated sub-assemblies and revised software, but remains in the original case. Having tested the
Valentine One a dozen times since then, I'll forgo a more detailed description of the unit here. More V1 tests:
The Valentine One turned in excellent X- and K-band scores, equaling the BEL STi Magnum at the
Straightaway Test Site at 11.3 miles. But it faltered a bit on Ka band. Would this matter in town? Nope. But it could on the open road some night, with light
traffic, few targets and a Ka-band-equipped state trooper rolling toward you.
The Valentine One showed similar difficulties at the Curve Test Site. Although its X- and K-band scores were excellent, closely trailing the BEL STi's, again it
lagged well behind the BEL on Ka-band. It was noticeably weaker on the two most commonly used frequencies, 34.7 GHz (23 percent less range) and 35.5
GHz (30 percent less
range). These two are used by nearly 95 percent of all domestic Ka-band police radar guns. (The two frequencies are also used by the radar models most
widely sold worldwide and thus, are the
frequently encountered on highways in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, China and dozens of other countries.)
That wasn't the Valentine One's most troubling shortcoming, however. (Seven miles of range at this site is still well beyond what I'd expect from any
detector.) That occurred at the Curve Test Site when the V1 strangely
failed to alert on K band even when parked next to the radar. The "All Bogeys" display indicated that it was
operating normally but it was dead on K band. That ended testing for the day. After purchasing a second sample,
also with the latest software, I repeated the test and used this unit for the Straightaway Test as well.
Once the tests were completed and with the first Valentine One now repaired, I decided to do a thermal test on two
BEL STi Magnum units and the pair of Valentine One detectors. Both models have metal cases and are controlled by DSP chips, in theory not the optimal
combination for sunny climates, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line in summertime.
Any electronics wizard knows why: DSP chips routinely fail when exposed to temperatures approaching 170 degrees F.
(Why do you think PCs have cooling fans?)
During testing, that first Valentine One had spent the entire test in an air-conditioned vehicle with outside
temperatures hovering in the mid-seventies. It was exposed to direct sunlight for the duration, as were all the units,
but save for a half-hour lunch break with the target car parked with windows up and A/C off, all the detectors were
For the heat test, I placed four units, two of each model, on the dash of the test car, a new Audi A4, powered
them up and left them running. The car windows remained closed, the engine off. (It's worth noting that the BEL STi Magnum is so well shielded that it wasn't detected by a Valentine One sitting next to it. The V1's high sensitivity leads it
to alert to many poorly-shielded detectors from hundreds of feet away.) At 20-minute intervals I used a calibrated
digital pyrometer to record the temperature of
each detector's housing and also the car's interior temperature. Ambient temperatures during the test ranged from
78 degrees F to 93 degrees F.
The results were surprising. The housings of both the Valentine One units reached 153 degrees F within 58
minutes. The BEL STi Magnum's climbed to 154 degrees F in 62 minutes. At that point one BEL STi shut itself
down, displaying a "Service Required" warning message. The other followed suit after 80 minutes, having reached a
temperature of 163 degrees F. I verified that neither was detecting any band of radar. This behavior is normal for DSP-driven equipment, at least for gear
that's sophisticated enough to have some sense of self-preservation. Rather
than suffer permanent damage, the unit takes a rest and notifies the user.
Next I checked the two Valentine One units. Neither indicated any sign of trouble, showing the normal "All
Bogey" display. But the first unit was dead on both K and Ka bands, the other on X and K bands.
As expected, once the engine was turned on and the air conditioning cranked up, both BEL STi Magnums resumed normal operation within eight minutes.
The Valentine Ones were not quite so resilient. One unit remained dead on K band, the other stayed dead on X
and K bands. This was surprising: the heat test asked nothing from the detectors they don't encounter in
routine service. An hour on the dash in mild spring weather is anything but an extreme test.
BEL engineers of my heat test, software tweaks were made. To verify their claims of fixing the problem I conducted a
second heat test, this one including a third Valentine One, with the earlier software version 3.816. The test confirmed
that it's possible that earlier-model Valentine Ones are experiencing an overheating issue as well.
A Valentine spokesman declined to comment. But I doubt this is an isolated instance. Judging from the rapid
proliferation of software upgrades in recent months, it's likely Valentine is aware of the problem. And in the past year
I've had a number of e-mails from Valentine One owners puzzled by their unit's uncommonly quiet operation. The Valentine One is famous for its chatty disposition, often warning of six to eight
simultaneous threats in town, nearly all of
which can be traced to detectors in passing cars or radar-operated automatic door openers at stores. Some owners complained about the lack of an alert
when passing a radar message trailer, those small roadside trailers with a
speed limit sign, radar and a digital display of your speed. Others were puzzled why their V1 failed to alert to a static radar signal
that it had alerted to without fail for months previously. I'd say this apparent susceptibility to heat could well be the answer. My advice to current Valentine One
owners: If yours is unusually quiet lately, better send it back for a
The fact that this expensive radar detector has no self-test diagnostics to warn of an internal failure is
surprising for a model that touts itself as the best ever made. The first clue you'll have could well be flashing red or
blue lights in your mirrors. However, that doesn't account for the Valentine One's second-place ranking in this test. It
earned that by virtue of some unfortunate gaps in its radar performance, by its so-so ergonomics and a noticeable
lack of features. (You can read the
aforementioned shootout story for full details.)
Excellent X-, K-band sensitivity
Class-leading laser sensitivity
Uneven Ka-band sensitivity
Very few features
No auto mute
Incessant false alarms, especially in town
Does this make the Valentine One the world's second-best radar detector? Don't forget about those directional
arrows, the rear antenna and great laser detection, V1 fanatics repeatedly rant. And they've got a point. Under ideal
conditions the directional arrows can pinpoint the direction of an incoming radar beam. And the rear antenna allows
the V1 to detect radar coming from behind nearly as well as it does coming from ahead. It's also the best in the
business at detecting lasers. How much extra credit does this buy the Valentine? The answer is purely subjective.
Radar from behind isn't much of a
problem (when was the last time you got a radar ticket
from a rolling cruiser behind you?). Superior laser detection is nice but if you're the target, the game is usually over even
before an alert is sounded. There are effective laser
countermeasures but they're not radar detectors. So you'll have to decide for yourself the value of these
attributes and features.
A much bigger problem today is photo enforcement--red light and speed cameras, plus photo radar vans--that's spreading like wildfire. Without GPS, the Valentine One provides no defense against red light
and speed cameras. But while the BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum has no internal GPS, it can be linked via two wires to the Escort Passport SC55 red light camera detector. The SC55 also operates as a stand-alone GPS alert system but when coupled with a high-end BEL or Escort radar detector, it controls the detector while
its Defender camera-location database warns of red light and speed cameras. In a comparison test of camera-location databases the Defender ranked first;
the Cobra Aura database came in a distant third. Read the GPS database
The Valentine One did extremely well, considering its age. In fact, in 2000 I named it the test winner in
my Automobile magazine test. But in the fast-paced world of consumer
electronics, a design dating from 1991 is ancient history, missing out on two decades' worth of technological advances.
BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum
Some years back I received a telephone call from BELtronics exec Don Rich. He had a question: Given the choice, what characteristics would I like
to see in the perfect high-end radar detector? "Superior sensitivity, high resistance to false alarms, good feature set
and a metal case to make it seem rugged. Make the color black to cut down on windshield glare. Put the major controls where you can reach and identify
them by touch and backlight them too, so you can find them at night," I
Apparently BEL listened. Years later I would be holding that radar detector in my hand: the BEL STi Magnum. It's housed in a robust, black magnesium case and has front-mounted controls that are backlit--an industry first for a dash-mount detector.
BEL STi Magnum controls are backlit and easily located at night
Unlit Valentine One controls are invisible in darkness
Can you get by without backlit controls? Certainly. But for a high-dollar piece of mobile electronics, if the technology is available, why not use it?
Features include selectable band defeat, the ability to shut off any of the radar bands or laser detection. In town, disabling X band is generally a good way to reduce false alarms caused by radar-controlled automatic door openers, for example.
Superb radar range
Extensive feature set
High resistance to false alarms
Undetectable by the RDD
The STi Magnum is a unique platform with dual front antennas and a host of other unique design elements. Although BEL doesn't make a big deal of it, the reason for many of these is to make the STi Magnum immune to radar detector detectors, particularly the Australian-made Spectre RDD, known outside the States as the Stalcar RDD.
To confirm its immunity to RDDs, I powered up the test BEL STi Magnum next to a late-model
Spectre (Stalcar) Mk IV on the dash and the Spectre never uttered a peep. I also found the BEL STi Magnum to
be unusually resistant to false alarms, particularly those caused by nearby radar detectors.
The BEL STi Magnum also excelled at its primary mission--ferreting out distant radar signals. It spotted all five
radars from over 11.25 miles away, the best performance I've ever witnessed from a radar detector. [Since eclipsed by the remarkable Escort Redline in my latest review.]
The BEL STi Magnum trounced the
Valentine One on Ka band, by far the most critical radar band to detect. And unlike the Valentine One, the BEL STi Magnum has
self-test diagnostics to warn you if it's feeling poorly. Even
discounting its RDD-proof capability and extreme sensitivity, the BEL STi Magnum could well merit the title as the Swiss
Army Watch of super-premium radar detectors.
BEL STi Magnum Limited Offer
Free Stealth Driving Tips, how to use your detector in no-detector areas