Which is the World's Best Radar Detector?
BEL vs. Cobra vs. Escort
By Craig Peterson
Last updated 2013
Escort RedLine, the world's longest-range radar detector. Range is crucial but to many, protection from red light cameras and false alarm resistance are equally important. Only a few radar detectors offer all three qualities.
One of the best-kept secrets of the radar detector industry has been the substandard performance of many new detectors--regardless of brand or price--in countering the latest police radar. The new radar guns share three characteristics which, together, have been causing endless headaches for detector designers--not to mention lead-footed drivers.
These new "smart" radar guns use DSP, digital signal processing, making them lightning-fast. In a recent test of front-line police radars, in stationary mode (parked at roadside) I found it possible to put them on RF Hold, not transmitting but ready to fire and, when a target approached, with a button-press I could transmit and get a speed. The process took less than 0.40 second. Clairvoyance isn't required to guess the outcome of an encounter like this.
These digital radar guns are ultra-low powered compared to their forebears and most use Ka band, a lethal combination. The weak signal is tougher
to detect and Ka band makes the job even harder because of its extraordinarily wide bandwidth, 2.6 Gigahertz, some 52 times wider than X band. Since radar can be anywhere within the spectrum, detectors must search the entire band looking for signals, a time-consuming process that dramatically lowers sensitivity--and detection range--if conventional signal processing techniques are used.
Many of the new radars have Fastest Speed, allowing the officer to press a button and clock the fastest vehicle, impossible to do with analog radar but easily handled by DSP. No more hiding behind 18-wheelers or slower traffic, bubba.
Not that even the best radar detector will make you invulnerable. 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 there isn't a police radar within 30 miles. These false alarms have been the perennial number one consumer complaint about radar detectors. It's a problem: if a detector cries wolf too often, eventually it'll be ignored, sometimes with unpleasant consequences.
Yet the only defense is to spot these new radars before they spot you, a job for a detector with superior Ka-band sensitivity. In recent years most
manufacturers have pumped up Ka-band performance. One of them, Escort--along with sister company BEL (Beltronics)--now offers models that combine high performance
with GPS, its solution to the false-alarm conundrum. Some new Cobra radar detectors also have GPS which, in theory at least, might bless them with an equal resistance to
false alarms. This begs the question: have the latest models finally got a handle on this Ka-band threat but without the usual Chicken Little behavior trait?
To find out I gathered up six detectors from three companies for a full test. All were dash-mount models priced between $299.95 and $499.95. Three were non-GPS units: the BEL (Beltronics) Pro 300 ($299.95), Escort Passport 8500 X50 ($339.95) and Escort Redline ($499.95). The others were GPS-enabled models: the BEL Pro 500 ($399.95), Escort Passport 9500ix ($499.95) and Cobra XRS-9970G ($389.95). Here are the results, listed alphabetically. (Or skip directly to my Top Picks).
BEL (Beltronics) Pro 300
"...lower-priced Escort Passport 8500 X50 clone"
- Superior radar sensitivity
- Extensive feature set
- User-friendly controls
- Voice alerts
The BEL (Beltronics) Pro 300 replaces the BEL Pro RX65 as the flagship non-GPS model in the Pro series lineup. Lower-priced models in the line include the BEL Pro 200 and Pro 100. Its GPS-enabled sibling is the superb BEL Pro 500.
Unlike the platinum-hued housing of its RX65 forebear, the BEL Pro 300 case is covered by a unique rubber-like matte finish. While the shiny BEL Pro RX65 was prone to casting a reflection of itself in the windshield on sunny days, the BEL Pro 300 is vastly more resistant to such behavior. This trait alone makes it more endearing than its predecessor.
The BEL Pro 300 is compatible with Escort Live, which uses a special power cord with Bluetooth to link to a smartphone app. As a realtime speedtrap warning system that also eliminates false alarms, we came away impressed after testing it in our notorious First Annual, Every-Other-Year XX Radar Rally.
Expert Meter (top) tracks up to nine signals, displaying radar band and signal strength of each.
Spec Meter shows radar signal frequency, letting savvy drivers ID radar, ignore spurious signals.
The BEL Pro 300 is plug-and-play but also offers seven user-selectable options. One is voice alerts, a feature not offered by its electronic twin, the Escort 8500 X50. These make threat identification nearly idiot-proof and speed the process of getting acquainted plus, there's no need to study the display for key information. Those who prefer alert tones instead can opt out with a few seconds' worth of button-pressing.
The BEL Pro 300 also has Tech mode (a.k.a. Spec mode), a handy feature that will tell the driver whether a Ka-band radar alert is police radar or another radar detector. Knowing the difference means not having to stand on the brakes in reaction to every alert.
In the Urban False Alarms test the BEL Pro 300 showed class-competitive resistance to annoying false alarms, better than the Cobra and equal to the non-GPS Escort
models, although no match for the eerily silent BEL Pro 500 and Escort Passport 9500ix, both of them GPS-enabled models.
At our Around-the-Curve test site, against the two Ka-band radars the Pro 300 ranked third, trailing the BEL Pro 500 by a paltry seven feet.
By a similar margin it was also a near tie with the Escort Passport 8500 X50 for third-place honors on K- and X band. It did equally well against our stealthy Redflex K-band photo radar unit.
In reality this model is an Escort 8500 X50 wearing different clothes (BEL is an Escort division). That family lineage with the BEL Pro 300's additional features and equally stellar performance make it one of our top picks among high-performance non-GPS radar detectors.
Escort 8500 X50
"...still the gold standard in this segment"
- Excellent radar sensitivity
- Simple controls
- Extensive feature set
Once the range-topping Escort, the Passport 8500 X50 is now slotted into the lineup just below the Escort Redline, not bad company since the Redline holds the world record for long range.
This Escort lacks the GPS technology of its corporate cousins, the BEL Pro 500 and Escort
Passport 9500ix, but if you're not pestered by red light cameras and can tolerate more false alarms, this one can get the job done.
There are two multi-function switches atop the case and a simple thumbwheel power/volume switch on the side. A high-visibility blue text display (the red version is
$299.95) on the front of the case is flanked by an audio manual-mute button.
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 provides an array of user-selectable features to tailor it to user preferences. Aside from the standard bar-graph display
there's also a unique Expert meter that tracks up to nine simultaneous radar threats
and displays the band and relative signal-strength of each.
Standard is a unique SmartCord with built-in status LED, alert light and mute switch. Plugged into the cigarette lighter, it allows the Escort Passport
8500 X50 to run in full-dark mode for discreet nighttime operation or to be tucked away out of sight, safe from inquisitive eyes. (The same cord is standard on all high-end BEL and Escort models.)
I found the Escort Passport 8500 X50 a paragon of user-friendly operation. Depressing both of the extra-large top buttons enters programming mode;
press the left button to scroll through the menu, the right button to make selections. It's the most intuitive programming method I've seen--shared by the other BEL and Escort models tested--and the only one
that doesn't require prior consultation with the owner manual.
The Escort Passport 8500 X50 also has Spec mode (BEL calls it Tech mode), a useful feature that tells the driver whether a Ka-band alert is police radar--or another radar detector. Like most Escort models, the Passport 8500 X50 is compatible with Escort Live, the clever smartphone-Internet-based real-time ticket-prevention system that also adds the advantages of GPS to the 8500 X50.
Instead of manually selecting city mode, for the Urban False Alarms Test I placed the Escort Passport 8500 X50 in Auto mode and let the microprocessor automatically regulate sensitivity. Apparently it's a pretty smart microprocessor, allowing eight false alarms on the urban loop, same as the BEL Pro 300 and Escort Redline--all caused by automatic door openers. (In comparison, the BEL Pro 500 and Escort Passport 9500ix uttered but one false alarm each, a graphic demonstration of the value of their integral GPS.)
It ranked third in spotting the lethal K-band photo radar, again slightly behind the Redline and Pro 500 but still delivering triple the range of the last-place Cobra XRS 9970G.
At our Around-the-Curve test site, the Escort 8500 X50 displayed almost identical radar scores to the BEL Pro 300, hardly a shock since the two are identical under the skin.It was also nearly tied with the BEL Pro 300 for third-place honors against K- and X band radar. It did equally well against our stealthy Redflex K-band photo radar unit.
Some may feel the Escort Passport 8500 deserves a few extra points over the BEL Pro 300 for its slightly more user-friendly operation, mainly its thumbwheel power/volume control versus the BEL's multifunction button. But judged solely on
performance and value, it would be nigh impossible to choose between the two.
"...world-best radar performance"
- Stunning radar warning range
- Simple controls
- Excellent visual alert system
The Escort Redline has a single mission in life: to spot radar from farther away than any other windshield-mounted radar detector. And it delivers--under perfect conditions we found that it alerted to all three radar frequencies from over 14 miles away. Under more real-worldly conditions--though still in flat, featureless country that simplifies radar detection--it consistently barked an alarm at over four miles. And we found that even in detector-unfriendly terrain, heavily forested with steep hills and curves, it can still ferret out radar long before a patrol car comes into view.
Although a clean, unadorned design, there are better-looking radar detectors in our opinion. But look closer and it's clear the Redline forgoes some flash in lieu of utility and performance. For example, note the matte-black housing, the lack of brightwork and a near absence
of graphics on top. It won't catch the eye on a store shelf like some detectors, but neither will it distract the driver from reflections cast onto the windshield during sunny days.
The red text display is composed of 280 individual LEDs for a crisp, high-intensity appearance. It's recessed in the case, shielded from the sun and easily read, even at high noon in the Sonora Desert. To make visual warnings even more compelling, a trio of bright red LEDs in the lower front case also lights up during alerts.
What gives the Escort Redline the world's longest radar-detection range is advanced technology, a clever design and premium components. This includes dual radar antennae, both forward-facing. (A rear antenna is unnecessary to detect radar coming from behind; the RedLine, for example, spotted one Ka-band radar 4.1 miles behind us.)
Twin antennae allowed Escort engineers to ease the microprocessor's workload, allowing it to do a more efficient job at spotting radar, a task at which the Redline is without peer. In an interview with MSN.com's Eric Sofge, I mentioned that performance like this pays a big dividend when you're facing the rolling radars common everywhere west of the Alleghenies.
Controls are minimalist: three flush-mounted switches for power, operating mode, audio volume and manual muting (auto-muting is standard). Depressing the latter two switches simultaneously produces the menu of user preferences.
The Escort Redline is all about long-range warning of radar, and this includes photo radar vans. In our test against the Redflex Systems K-band radar it led the pack by a large margin. It also proved the best at spotting all four of our radar guns at the Around-the-Curve test site.
The Redline tied the BEL Pro 300 for the fewest urban false alarms among the non-GPS models. Like any hypersensitive radar detector, that attribute occasionally works against it.
There is a solution, however. The Redline is compatible with Escort Live, the clever smartphone-Internet-based real-time ticket-prevention system. Escort Live also lends the advantages of GPS to the Redline, allowing users to lock out nuisance signals and cut false alarms dramatically.
The Escort Redline's industry-best protection against every type of radar earned it top-dog status among non-GPS radar detectors.
BEL Pro 500
"...bargain-priced Escort 9500ix clone"
- Excellent radar sensitivity
- Extremely resistant to false alarms
- Highly effective defense against speed cameras
- Priced far less than Escort 9500ix
A surprise player in the detector game is the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500. Overshadowed by its heavily-hyped twin, the Escort Passport 9500ix, few know that the BEL Pro 500, save for mostly cosmetic differences, is the same detector. When parent company Escort rolled out the GPS-enabled 9500ix, its subsidiary, Beltronics (BEL), was given a cloned version as well. The two differ slightly in appearance and features, sharing a platform, switchgear and electronic innards. Even their accessories are interchangeable; each uses the corporate Defender camera database as well.
BEL promotes this Pro-series model as a sophisticated tool for the serious road warrior. To illustrate that mission its housing is covered with a unique matte-black, soft-touch material. in contrast, the Escort Passport 9500ix housing is of semi-glossy polycarbonate. The BEL's rubber-like texture makes the Pro 500 feel like upscale hardware and more important, it doesn't reflect a mirror image of itself into the windshield during daylight hours.
The BEL Pro 500 is slightly thinner than the Escort Passport 9500ix and its speaker is on top, not the bottom. Like the Escort 9500ix it has a double row of three top-mounted controls. These are slightly larger and a bit farther apart than the Escort's, making them easier--for this writer at least--to locate and to press, without snagging an adjacent button in the process. That aside, control layout, operation and performance of the two models are identical.
There's a wide range of user preferences, allowing the unit to be tailored to the driver's taste. Selecting one option will display the full word--Highway, for highway mode (maximum sensitivity and longest radar range)--in the red text display, for example. Or it can be minimized to a small, pulsing red dot for ultra-discreet nighttime running. Discretion in this case means not advertising the detector's presence to detector-poor drivers or the fuzz, some of whom dislike radar detectors and those who use them.
There are other display options. One is vehicle speed, useful information at the moment an alert sounds. Another is vehicle voltage, helpful in spotting potential electrical problems. Among other options, a radar band can be deactivated. This will allow a driver in, say, South Florida to shut off X band on a trip over unfamiliar roads up to the Panhandle. Doing so makes the Pro 500 immune to the abundant roadside X-band automatic door openers found at commercial establishments lining every major highway along the route.
Their feature sets are also the same with one exception: the Pro 500 does without the Escort's AutoLearn feature. Whether AutoLearn is a deal-breaker depends entirely on the driver's level of engagement. Those who prefer having the detector lock out nuisance signals automatically would be wise to choose the Escort 9500ix instead. With the BEL Pro 500, signal lockout is done with a triple-tap of the mute button, either on the detector or using the SmartCord mute button.
The Beltronics Pro 500 proved the equal of the Escort 9500ix in blocking false alarm sources. For instance, on an 800-mile roundtrip freeway blast from Phoenix to San Diego, a Valentine One used for comparison alerted 91 times, all but seven of them false alarms. In contrast, the BEL Pro 500 uttered only two false alarms, both on the outbound leg. On the return, it stayed tomb-silent for the duration.
The BEL Pro 500's phenomeonal resistance to false alarms, industry-best protection against red light and speed cameras plus its superb radar-detection range easily earned it top-dog status among the GPS-enabled radar detectors. And it doesn't hurt that the BEL Pro 500 is a hundred bucks less expensive than the Escort Passport 9500ix.
Escort Passport 9500ix
"...best GPS radar detector on the planet"
- Exceptional radar range
- Plug 'n play operation
- Near-zero false alarms
- Extensive feature set
Unlike its clone, the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500, the upmarket Escort 9500ix has an exclusive feature, AutoLearn. Drive past the same false alarm source three times, usually an automatic door opener, and the 9500ix identifies it as bogus, automatically adding this signal to the database and staying silent on subsequent trips.
This can also be done manually--the only method available in the BEL Pro 500--by pressing the SmartCord mute button three times during an alert. Like the BEL Pro 500, when adding the location to the database, four types of location tags let the driver identify it for future reference.
Rather than the BEl Pro 500's red backlighting, the top-mounted controls of the Escort 9500ix are backlit in soft blue, making them easy to find at night. There a few other differences of note. For example, the first few updates of the Escort Passport 9500ix's Defender red light-speed camera database are complimentary, while with the BEL Pro 500, a subscription must first be purchased at nominal cost before it can be updated.
The Escort 9500ix comes in a classy, hard-sided presentation case but it's huge, way too big to travel. If you want to protect the detector and accessories, move it among vehicles or take it on an aircraft, the solution is the Escort Passport 9500ix Pro Pack, available for an extra ten bucks.
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.
The ability of the Escort 9500ix to mark and lock out nuisance signals automatically, coupled with speed-variable radar sensitivity, creates a supernaturally quiet radar detector and gives this GPS-enabled radar detector--as well as the BEL Pro 500 the the pair's GPS-enabled siblings--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, where both stayed almost completely silent on repeated passes through microwave-saturated central Phoenix and during a 750-mile roundtrip freeway blast. The competing models never stopped yapping.
This ability also can be found on two cousins, both remote models, the Escort Passport 9500ci and BEL STiR Plus, which in our opinion, constitute the gold standard in this class. Aside from even better performance, those two have discreet components, come standard with laser jammers and are custom-installed, invisible both to thieves and curious cops. These attributes make them widely popular with owners of high-end vehicles, particularly cars like, say, a BMW M-Series or Audi S-Line; the Porsche 911, Cayman and Boxster, not to mention any Ferrari or Lamborghini. If you've ever wondered why radar detectors are rarely seen hanging from the windshields of many such vehicles, this is why.
To no one's surprise, the Escort Passport 9500ix and Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500 performed nearly identically against radar. Both exhibited class-leading performance at each of our test sites on the critical K and Ka bands.
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.
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 also benefits from the corporate Defender camera location database, which our first-ever review and comparison test proved to be industry-best with a 95-percent accuracy rate.
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. The substantial 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.
The Cobra XRS-9970G has a 1.5-inch touch-screen OLED display that controls every function except on/off/volume. Visual alerts and status information are depicted in
brilliant 3D graphics, making this one of the most stylish models on the market. This visual entertainment does have a downside, however. A display needs to be bright
enough to be legible in sunlight and even at its dimmest setting, at night this one is like watching TV. It automatically disappears after an adjustable delay, leaving a tiny
LED--which usually is invisible--to verify that it's working. This means having to press a button to energize the display whenever you'd like check its status.
Unlike the BEL and Escort dash-mount radar detectors, the Cobra XRS 9970G has no integral GPS receiver. It shares the corporate GPS module, which must
be plugged-in to its side, and which often detaches itself from the detector while it is being handled. The system works, but doesn't offer the simplicity of an integrated
- Competitive Ka-band radar sensitivity
- Gorgeous display
- Accurate GPS location system
- Weak X-band performance
- Defenseless against K-band photo radar
- Separate GPS module adds cockpit clutter
- No ability to lock out nuisance signals
- Frequent false alarms
- Spotty performance against red light cameras
Another crucial feature missing on the Cobra XRS 9970G is an ability to lock-out non-police radar signals like radar-controlled automatic door openers. The BEL Pro 500, BEL STi-R Plus
remote and all of the Escort 9500-series models can do this, and it gives them a huge advantage. Without this ability the Cobra will continue to false-alarm whenever it
encounters door openers on a daily commute. It's also very prone to false alarms in reaction to radar detectors in other cars, most often on Ka band.
In our Urban False Alarms test the Cobra XRS 9970G barked warnings of 19 nonexistent threats: Four X-band, eight K-band, five Ka-band and two Spectre II radar detector
detectors. (None of the latter is in service anywhere here in Arizona.) During this test we shut off its SWS (Safety Warning System) to prevent even more bogus alerts, mindful
that another Cobra, used in our star-crossed 2012 Radar Rally, was also prone to warning of
phantom trains approaching--miles from the nearest tracks.
We also found that its GPS system, while accurate enough, issued alerts of speed cameras and red light cameras that had been removed years earlier. And it routinely
failed to warn of cameras installed within the past two years, both shortcomings the legacy of rather leisurely updates to its Aura camera database.
The Cobra ranked dead last in our radar performance tests, delivering very weak K-band detection range although class-competitive range against X- and Ka-band radar.
And it failed to alert to the deadly Redflex photo radar unless we changed lanes and drove within feet of the parked radar vehicle.
This Cobra has some compelling attributes but with its design compromises and chatty nature, the Cobra XRS 9970G has some rough edges that may diminish its attractiveness to serious drivers.