Which is the World's Best Radar Detector?
BEL vs. Cobra vs. Escort vs. Whistler
By Charles Bauer
Last updated: 2015
Until recently, a radar detector needed only to detect radar and lasers. But new threats have arrived, including red light cameras, photo radar and speed cameras. Some newer cameras use radar, in theory making them detectable. But most do not, requiring a different technology.
There's also some new police radar entering service, unusually lethal and difficult to detect. Learn more...
This begs the question: How well can the latest detectors fend off all of these threats?
To find out, we gathered up seven best-selling detectors from four manufacturers. Six were windshield-mount models, one was a built-in (remote) model. Prices ranged from $199 to $1999.
For comparison tests we normally group products by price. In radar detectors, performance almost always rises in lock-step with price; comparing a $199 model with one that costs 10 times as much isn't fair. But this time we'll make an exception, presenting their test scores to show how much protection is available at different price points.
The Escort Passport ($349 MSRP) and Escort RedlineXR ($599) are non-GPS models; the others are GPS-enabled. Included: BEL Pro 500 ($399), Cobra XRS-9970G ($299), Escort Passport 9500ci ($1,999), Escort Passport Max ($549) and Whistler CR90 ($199).
GPS is significant because it offers the best hope for avoiding red light and speed cameras. The detector knows where it is and by comparing GPS coordinates with its database of camera locations, it can alert when one is neared.
No guarantees though. Somebody's got to keep the database up to date, a back-breaking task and one evidently performed haphazardly by some of the players. Cobra's Aura camera database, for instance, didn't alert to 33 cameras out of every 100. Worse, we found that cameras installed two years earlier still hadn't been added to the database when we tested it for accuracy. Whistler uses a contractor's camera database that depends upon user-reported camera locations, many of which are non-existent. This results in more annoying false alarms than we'd prefer.
How We Tested Them
Testing against conventional police radar was done at our two sites north of Phoenix, Arizona. One checks their performance on a long straightaway, an easy test. The other replicates a worst-case situation where the radar vehicle is parked in the middle of a plunging S-curve. Here the radar is shooting uphill and away from cars until they blunder into the beam. Learn more...
We tested against Redflex photo radar, a low-powered K-band design that's especially difficult to detect. The test was conducted on a closed Interstate and multiple runs were made, using each of the two travel lanes. This altered our lateral distance from the parked radar van, varying the ease of detection. Learn more...
We tested the accuracy of their red light camera databases by visiting over 100 camera locations in three states. Learn more...
The Escort RedlineXR ranked first in radar protection, showing the influence price has on performance. For example, tested against conventional police radar at our 15-mile-long site, it spotted the radar 9.4 miles sooner than the Cobra.
It had a similar advantage when confronted with photo radar; the Cobra failed to alert to this low-powered, detector-unfriendly radar while the Escort gave plenty of advance notice.
Without the benefit of having GPS, this Escort scored lower in camera protection compared to the GPS-enabled models, also reducing its overall effectiveness rating.
Adding GPS can be done with Escort Live ($99 MSRP), a crowd-sourced ticket-prevention system. Escort Live links a smartphone (iPhone or Android) to the detector via Bluetooth. With GPS now onboard, the Escort uses the Defender database to warn of cameras. It also gives real-time alerts of speedtraps, roving cops and similar threats.
Once linked to Escort Live, the Escort RedlineXR achieved the holy trinity among detectors: long advance notice for every type of radar along with protection from photo enforcement cameras. It was rated best overall among the windshield-mounted models.
The Escort Passport Max (and Max2) scored highest among GPS-enabled windshield-mount models. Neither approached the Redline's radar performance, but stellar camera protection gave them a boost in overall rankings.
The BEL Pro 500 narrowly trailed the two Max models. It was their equal in camera protection, marginally less so against radar.
The BEL was also the least expensive of the Escort and BEL (same company) GPS-enabled models. (Escort's version of the Pro 500 is the excellent Passport 9500ix.)
This model lacks the AutoLearn feature found in the step-up Escort GPS models, costing it a higher ranking. But for those who don't mind manually locking out nuisance signals, its lower price may offset the lack.
Not surprisingly, the pricier Escort 9500ci outranked its GPS-enabled siblings, courtesy of higher radar sensitivity.
The mid-pack rankings of the Cobra and Whistler reflect the expected tradeoff between price and performance. Shorter radar range and less-effective camera databases penalized both. So did their inability to defend against photo radar or lock out nuisance signals generating 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 its twin, the 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 radar common 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.
Get World-Best Ticket Protection Now with the Escort RedlineXR
"...the Mercedes SL65
AMG of radar detectors"
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.
We also found that the Escort RedlineXR gave the earliest warning of our radar guns at the Hill-Curve test site. Even 10 percent greater range here means that in flat country, the Redline XR can spot radar 1.4 miles sooner than the standard Escort Redline, the previous record holder.
In a test over unfamiliar roads, 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 none of the GPS-enabled models had their usual advantage: both driver and radar detector were experiencing the route for the first time.
A further reduction in false alarms is available: the Escort RedlineXR will link instantly with Escort Live, the 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.
"...best radar and red light
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 (and its twin, the Escort Passport Max2, 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.
Using internal 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.
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.
Get Maximum Ticket Protection With the Escort Passport Max
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.
The Escort Passport supersedes the hallowed Escort 8500 X50 and is a non-GPS model, like the Escort RedlineXR. Although somewhat lower in performance and with fewer features, in compensation it also costs much less.
The Passport is controlled by four switches atop the case and has the same OLED display as the Max and Max2.
Like the latter, it has Bluetooth to communicate with Escort Live. (Other Escort and BEL models use a power cord whose integral Bluetooth accomplishes the same task.) It also offers text and voice alerts in Spanish, same as the Max2.
The Escort Passport 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 coiled Smart Cord with built-in status LED, alert light and mute switch. Plugged into the cigarette lighter, it allows the Escort Passport 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 and also allows the driver remote access to the mute function. Aside from convenience, the ability to remotely control the Passport also heightens driving safety.
Escort Passport: Long-Range Radar and Laser Detection
"...best performance in
this price class"
At our Around-the-Curve test site, the Escort Passport showed stellar radar range, nearly apporoaching that of the Max. This hardly comnes a shock since the two share the corporate M5 platform.
The Passport also earned third-place honors against K- and X band radar and did equally well against the stealthy Redflex photo radar unit.
A third-place finish among this pricey group of overachievers is commendable. And it's worth noting that the Passport delivered nearly 90 percent of the Redline's K-band range, better than we expected.
Offering high levels of performance and value, among non-GPS models the Escort Passport holds sway in the under-$350 price class.
BEL Pro 500
A little-known player 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.
Protect yourself from radar and red light cameras now
"...best radar - red light
protection under $400"
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.
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: even at its dimmest setting, at night this one is like watching TV. The screen mercifully goes blank 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 when handled. The system works, but doesn't offer the simplicity of an integrated package.
Another crucial feature missing in the Cobra XRS-9970G is an ability to lock out non-police radar signals like radar-controlled automatic door openers. This means it will false-alarm each time one of these is passed.
In contrast, Escort's technology can record the electronic fingerprint of a radar signal, noting its frequency and GPS coordinates. Once marked and stored in memory, the detector can review these data when it encounters another signal at the same location. If the frequency matches, the radar detector concludes that it's the same signal and refrains from alerting.
Escort models will perform the task automatically, a feature called AutoLearn. Pass the same fixed radar source three times and the unit automatically adds this location to its database. Next time the signal is encountered, they remain silent.
The Cobra does allow new locations to be added to its database and will subsequently issue a generic User Location alert on return trips. But it still false-alarms in the same spots, and no information is supplied—it's up to the user to remember the significance of a marked location.
In contrast, Escort users can tag it as a red light camera, speed camera, speed trap or "other". The description helps a driver prioritize the threat level and respond appropriately.
Escort cornered this technology and enjoys an enormous competitive advantage because of it. During the Urban False Alarms test, for example, 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 prone to warning of phantom trains approaching—although the nearest tracks were miles away.
We also found that its GPS system 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 are the legacy of rather leisurely updates to its Aura camera database, which ranked a distant second place in our test.
Although class-competitive against Ka-band radar, the Cobra ranked last in performance due to very weak K-band sensitivity. For this reason it failed to alert to the deadly Redflex photo radar unless we changed lanes and drove within inches of the radar.
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.
More about the new police radar
These radars 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.
They 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. View the best high performance radar detectors.