Beltronics (BEL) STi Magnum, the world's only undetectable high-performance radar
detector with a metal housing.
Discussions about radar detectors inevitably get around to the question: What's the best radar detector? Tough call: the definition of "best" varies widely, as do drivers' expectations.
For instance, 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 alerts when they haven't seen a police vehicle in several hours. 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 $499 BEL (Beltronics) STi Magnum (previously called STi Driver). Then I ran them
through my usual battery of tests.
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.)
Until the arrival of the BEL STi Magnum the Valentine One was the only dash-mount model in this segment. It's since been joined by others. These include some GPS-enabled models, the Escort Passport 9500ix and the BEL (Beltronics) Pro 500. Another is the Escort Redline, which turned in a spectacular performance in a recent test when it detected all of our radars from a supernatural 14.17-mile distance.
The issue 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? Our rural Colorado test site, used for 16 years, is absolutely straight, nearly level and almost eight miles in
length. But its farthest point is on a slight rise, and the next-higher rise behind it is another three miles away. Not surprising, even the best detectors have never exceeded 7.6 miles of range here.
Needed for this test was a new venue, one 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.
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 checked elevations at 1,000-foot intervals along the entire length, finding no more than a few hundred feet of elevation deviation along the route.
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 was practically flat, 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, difference, the unit of measurement used to gauge a detector's sensitivity) can mean significant range variations.
Long radar-detection range is crucial, especially when conditions favor the enforcers.
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.
We also tested the BEL STi Magnum and Valentine One at our Curve Test Site 30 miles northwest of Phoenix, the ultimate real-world test.
The cruiser is hunkered down in a plunging S-curve, radar picking off vehicles barely 650 feet away.
How We Rated Them
A 200-point maximum was possible: 140 for radar performance, 20 each for features, ergonomics and resistance to false alarms. Radar points were weighted by threat level. X band:
5 points, K band: 20 points and 15 each for the three common Ka-band frequencies. Radar points from the two test sites were averaged.
The Valentine One, introduced in 1991, added laser detection in the mid-1990s and has received sporadic software tweaks since, but is otherwise unchanged.
It 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 the commonly used 35.5-gigahertz Ka band frequency.
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.)
More troubling was behavior observed at the Curve Test Site where 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, this test and the Straightaway Test were run again.
Once the tests were completed and with the first Valentine One repaired, we were curious about the cause of its failure. Each model has a metal case; we wondered if they would be susceptible to overheating after a summertime hot-soak in a parked vehicle.
To find out, we placed two of each model on the dash of an Audi A4 and left them running. With windows up and engine off, we used a digital pyrometer to check the surface temperature of their housings and vehicle interior at 20-minute intervals. Outside temperatures were mild, ranging from 78 degrees to 93 degrees Fahrenheit.
The results were surprising. The housings of both Valentine Ones reached 153 degrees within 58 minutes. The BEL STi Magnum hit 154 degrees in 62 minutes. At that point one BEL STi displayed a "Service Required" warning message and shut itself off. The other followed suit after 80 minutes, its metal case having reached a toasty 163 degrees.
Neither Valentine One showed signs of distress, so we powered-up some radar guns to check their health. The first V1 declined to alert to either K or Ka band; the other ignored X and K bands.
With the Audi's engine running and the A/C cranked up, after eight minutes both BEL STi Magnums resumed normal operation and alerted to our radar guns.
The Valentine Ones were not quite so resilient. One remained dead on K band, the other on X and K bands; both required a trip to the factory for repair. We were disappointed at the lack of a heads-up to warn of the internal failures.
Excellent X-, K-band sensitivity
Class-leading laser sensitivity
Uneven Ka-band sensitivity
No auto mute
Frequent urban false alarms
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 fans are quick to note. 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.
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 offers no defense against these. But while neither does the BEL STi Magnum have GPS, it's compatible with Escort Live.
The Valentine One turned in a very creditable performance and can still keep the front-runners in sight. But advances in detector technology kept it out of the top spot in this test.
BEL STi Magnum
Some years back we received a telephone call from BELtronics exec Don Rich. He had a question: Given the choice, what characteristics would we 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," we
Apparently BEL listened. Years later we would be holding that radar detector: 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 to facilitate nighttime operation.
Valentine One controls
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?
Other BEL STi Magnum 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
Resistant to false alarms
Undetectable by RDDs
The STi Magnum uses a special platform with dual front antennas and a host of other unique design elements. Although the company doesn't make a big deal of it, the reason for many of these is to make the BEL 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 remained silent. I also found the BEL STi Magnum to
be quite resistant to false alarms, particularly those caused by nearby radar detectors.
The BEL STi Magnum excelled at its primary mission--ferreting out distant radar signals. It spotted all five
radars from over 11.25 miles away, at test time the best-ever performance from a radar detector. [Eclipsed by the BEL's electronic clone, the Escort Redline, in a subsequent test.]
The BEL STi Magnum showed superiority over the
Valentine One on Ka band, by far the most critical radar band. Unlike the Valentine One, the BEL STi Magnum has self-test diagnostics and warns if it's suffering a malady. Even
discounting its RDD-proof capability and high sensitivity, the BEL STi Magnum may merit the title as the Swiss
Army Watch of super-premium radar detectors.