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) we found it possible to put them on RF Hold, not transmitting but ready to fire and, when a target approached, with a button-press we could get a speed in less than four-tenths of a second. Clairvoyance isn't required to guess the outcome of an encounter like this.
These radars are very 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 (GHz), 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 we gathered up six detectors from three companies for a test. All were windshield-mount models priced between $299.95 and $599.95. Two were non-GPS units: the Escort Passport 8500 X50 and Escort RedlineXR. The others were GPS-enabled models: the BEL Pro 500, Escort Passport 9500ix, Escort Passport Max and Cobra XRS-9970G. Here are the results. (Or skip directly to our Top Picks).
Escort Redline XR
"...world's best radar protection"
- Stunning radar warning range
- Simple controls
- Excellent alert system
- Few false alarms
The Escort Redline XR excels in radar-detection range. It also showed extreme resistance to urban false alarms.
The Escort RedlineXR has a single mission in life: to spot radar from farther away than any other windshield-mounted radar detector. And it delivers--under ideal conditions we found that it alerted to all three radar frequencies from nearly 15 miles away. Under more real-worldly conditions--though still in flat, featureless country that aids radar detection--it consistently barked an alarm at over five miles. Only two radar detectors have slightly better range, the Escort Passport 9500ci and the performance-optimized BEL (Beltronics) STiR Plus. Both are remote models and priced considerably higher.
The Escort RedlineXR 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 RedlineXR 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 Escort RedlineXR excels. In an interview with MSN.com's Eric Sofge, we mentioned that performance like this pays a big dividend when 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 RedlineXR is all about long-range warning of radar, and this includes photo radar vans. In our test against the Redflex K-band radar it had the best range we've seen. This trait will likely appeal to those at risk from this type of automated speed enforcement.
The Escort RedlineXR also gave the earliest warning of our radar guns at the Hill-Curve test site. Ten percent greater range shown here means that in flat country, the Redline XR can spot radar 1.4 miles sooner than the Redline, the previous record holder.
The Escort RedlineXR had substantially fewer urban false alarms than the competition. It was even quieter the Escort Passport Max, a GPS-enabled model that can lock out spurious signals.
In this test over unfarmiliar roads, GPS in the Escort Passport Max gave it no advantage: both driver and radar detector were seeing the route for the first time.
A further reduction in false alarms is available: the Escort RedlineXR is compatible with Escort Live, the clever crowd-sourced ticket-prevention system. Escort Live links a smartphone (iPhone or Android), to the detector via Bluetooth. By using the smartphone's GPS, users can lock out nuisance signals and cut false alarms dramatically.
With its user-friendly operation and stunning radar range, we found the Escort RedlineXR to be the best windshield-mounted radar detector available.
Escort Passport Max
"...best-performing GPS model"
- Class-leading radar range
- Red light camera defense
- Extensive features
- Low-contrast display
Escort Passport Max has the best performance of any GPS-enabled model. It defends against red light cameras, has much of the Escort Redline XR's long range and offers good resistance to false alarms.
There's a tough balancing act required of a radar detector--give advance warning of radar but without crying wolf too often. Increasingly it's also being asked to protect from red light and speed cameras.
Incorporating GPS allows one Escort model to handle the camera menace brilliantly. Another delivers spectacular range by using dual antennae and a host of other pricey components. Yet no model offered both attributes. The Escort Passport Max aims to bridge this gap.
In appearance the Escort Max differs markedly with other Escorts. On those, a utilitarian black housing and the absence of ornamental trim on top keeps their presence low-key. It also limits distracting reflections cast into the windshield, something that can't be said about the Max.
Compared to the others, the Escort Passport Max clearly visited a different tailor. A wide swath of faux-brushed aluminum trim sweeps along the sides and front; its six top-mounted control buttons are of the same material. Instead of the high-contrast LED display (red on the Redline, blue or red on the Passport 9500ix), the Escort Passport Max uses OLED technology for its display.
OLED allows the use of artful pictographs, with text displayed in fonts, rather than as a series of LEDs lit to form alpha-numeric characters. It offers substantially less contrast than an LED display but does permit a choice of four colors. Control buttons are backlit, easing the task of operating them at night. During alerts their backlighting pulses rhythmically.
With GPS the Max monitors vehicle speed, location and direction of travel. It compares these with its database and warns of photo-enforcement cameras. If a red light camera is also a speed trap, a special alert is given. Then it displays distance to the camera, in feet.
X band range matters little, as nearly all radar guns today use K and particularly Ka band.
Vehicle speed is shown on the left of the display. An Overspeed alert sounds if a threshold speed is exceeded, factory-default set at 70 mph. It can be user-set between 20 and 90 or it shut off. When linked to the innovative Escort Live system the posted speed limit is also displayed.
In Novice mode the Max is 100 percent plug-and-play. In Advanced mode the driver can choose among preferences. These include tones or voice alerts. Four Meter modes are offered. Standard shows the radar band, with a bar graph to show signal strength (distance to the radar). Expert displays multiple threats and the signal strength of each. Spec shows radar band and numeric frequency. Simple mode compares current speed to the posted limit and gives a generic alert.
Like its two siblings, the Escort Passport Max has an excellent audible information-delivery system, with a choice of voice alerts or two different sets of tones. The latter includes the standard Escort tones or unique doorbell-like chimes.
With AutoLearn the Max identifies nuisance signals like radar-controlled door openers. Drive past three times and the Max locks them out automatically. In the future it will alert to nearby police radar, but not the door.
Other standard features include AlertLock and Speed Alert, same as the Escort Passport 9500ix. A new feature is variable-delay automatic power shut-off, called AutoPower, which shuts off the unit after a period of inactivity. The delay can be set at 1, 2, 4 or 8 hours, with a factory default of four hours.
On the right side of the housing is a USB jack, used for detector firmware revisions and updates of the Defender database. This camera-location database proved the most effective red light camera countermeasure in an extensive test.
Buy the Escort Passport Max now
"...best radar/red light camera defense"
- Coiled Smart Cord with remote
- StickyCup windshield mount
- Deluxe carrying case
- Quick-start user guide
- Free same-day shipping
On the road, we found the Escort Max to behave very similarly to the Escort Passport 9500ix. Over time it progressively locked out errant signals causing false alarms. Then it generally remained quiet unless it was warning of police radar or red light cameras.
Part of this behavior can be attributed to speed-variable sensitivity (radar warning range). A microprocessor dials it back at low speed, limiting false alarms in town. As speed rises, sensitivity increases in lock-step for maximum range.
We performance-tested the Escort Passport Max at our Curve/Hill site northwest of Phoenix. For comparison we included an Escort Redline and an Escort Passport 9500ix. Any doubts about the Escort Max's capabilities disappeared here. Against most of the radars it was comfortably ahead of the Escort Passport 9500ix and within sight of the Escort Redline. But against one commonly used Ka-band radar it nearly kept pace with the Redline, an achievement of some note.
We found the stylish Escort Passport Max to offer a compelling blend of class-leading radar performance, high resistance to false alarms and bulletproof protection from red light cameras.
Escort Passport 9500ix
"...best radar detector in its class"
- Superior radar warning range
- Plug 'n play operation
- Near-zero false alarms
- Extensive feature set
Unlike its clone, the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500, the upmarket Escort Passport 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 Passport 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 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 noise-reduction strategy also is found in two cousins, both remote models, the Escort Passport 9500ci and BEL STiR Plus, which together constitute the gold standard in this class. Aside from 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 remote models 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 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. This Passport 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 and Escort Passport Max, the Escort 9500ix proved to be one of only two GPS-enabled, windshield-mount radar detector we've tested that offers reliable protection from Redflex photo radar vans, an increasingly common threat. (The other is the
Escort Passport Max.) In contrast, we were able to motor past these speed vans without either of the Cobras alerting to them.
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 the Escort Live system. This combines Bluetooth, a smartphone app and the Internet to connect with fellow drivers for early warnings of speedtraps and similar perils ahead.
Its substantial capabilities--coupled with superior sensitivity, a user-friendly nature and freedom from false alarms--makes the Escort Passport 9500ix the best radar detector in its class.
BEL Pro 500
"...superb Escort 9500ix clone"
- Superior radar range
- Resistant to false alarms
- Red light camera protection
- Attractively priced
GPS allows the BEL Pro 500 user to lock out sources of false alarms. Escort and BEL models were far quieter than either the GPS Cobra XRS 9970G or the non-GPS Valentine One.
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 Passport 9500ix, its subsidiary, Beltronics (BEL), was given a cloned version. 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 some 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.
BEL Pro 500
"...superb Escort 9500ix clone"
Buy the BEL Pro 500 now
- BEL Pro 500 Performance Tips
Drive ticket-free with our guide
- Coiled Smart Cord with remote
- Multi-adjustable windshield bracket
- Free same-day shipping
Their feature sets are also the same with one exception: the BEL 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 consider the Escort Passport 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 coiled SmartCord's 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. With these signals locked out, 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 priced below the Escort Passport 9500ix.
Escort 8500 X50
"...still the gold standard in this segment"
- Superior radar sensitivity
- Simple controls
- Extensive feature set
Escort Passport 8500 X50 shares its platform with the BEL Pro 300 and performs equally as well.
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 ranks just behind the Escort Redline XR as world-best in radar range. This Escort model lacks the GPS technology of its corporate cousins, the BEL Pro 500 and Escort
Passport 9500ix, but for those not pestered by red light cameras and who can tolerate a few more false alarms, this one can get the job done well.
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 (red is optional) is flanked by an audio mute button.
Standard is a unique Smart Cord 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 Escort models.)
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.
We found the Escort Passport 8500 X50 a paragon of user-friendly operation. Pressing 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 we've seen--shared with 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 crowd-sourced ticket-prevention system that also adds the advantages of GPS to the Escort Passport 8500 X50.
Escort Passport 8500 X50
"...best performance in its class"
Buy the Escort Passport 8500 X50 now
- Escort 8500 X50 Performance Tips
Drive ticket-free with our exclusive guide
- Coiled Smart Cord with remote
- Travel case
- Quick-adjust windshield bracket
- Same-day shipping
Instead of manually selecting city mode, for the Urban False Alarms Test we 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--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 the 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.
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 package.
- Competitive Ka-band radar sensitivity
- Gorgeous display
- Accurate GPS location system
- Lots of features
- Weak X-band performance
- Defenseless against photo radar
- Separate GPS module adds clutter
- Unable to lock out nuisance signals
- Frequent false alarms
- Spotty performance vs. 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 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 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.