Reprinted from
Po r t a b l e
July 2010 …
We found Vertex units, like this
VXA-300 performed well, but have a
complex operating logic that hampers
their utility.
a v i o n i c s
radiating a signal to the unit’s rubber
antenna.
We used them in flight (and
dropped two on a Piper flap handle),
stuffed them into our unorganized
flight bag and strutted around the
airfield with them in our cargo pants.
We even tested them in our kitchen
over morning coffee where, despite
roughly 12 miles of hilly terrain between us and the airfield, all but the
Vertex units could pull in the ATIS at
half-open squelch.
Sporty’s Old and New
Portable VHF radios:
Sporty’s SP-400 Shines
Call ‘em suspenders with over-equipped glass panels or
a belt in a stark LSA, but we think portable transceivers
still have a place in today’s cockpit.
by Larry Anglisano
D
espite the ridiculous backup
common to modern cockpits,
the portable radio is the last
resort when all other options fail.
But not all are created equal, and
add-ons, such as an external antenna
connection, can play seriously into
performance and cost. Here’s our
hard-nosed report.
Our criteria: Portables must have a
high-end transmitter with a modulator that can reach reasonable distances at altitude. They must offer a
headset interface. They must be small
enough to stow in a map pocket but
large enough for easy use in highworkload emergencies.
Gettin’ the Geek Out
Nearly all portable airborne radios offer roughly one watt of transmit pow-
er (which is still way more than your
average cell phone). Contrast this to a
panel-mount radio that transmits 1015 watts of power and you see why an
external antenna is almost a required
accessory for serious use of a portable.
Quality of the built-in microphone
also matters. In our view, headsets
are required when using any portable
com in the cabin of a piston aircraft.
But there could be a time when your
only headset fails and your portable is
your only option.
We saddled each transceiver to a
calibrated spectrum analyzer and
measured both transmit power output
and receiver sensitivity. We also tested
the nav receivers in the units that
were so equipped with a calibrated
nav-signal generator, injecting a signal
direct into the unit’s receiver and
The SP-200 has always represented a
good value, in our view. It’s a nononsense unit that we applaud for its
simple, yet rugged, design. We think
Sporty’s offers the most robust units
of the ones we tested. It’s also the
largest in the group, measuring 6.65
inches tall, 2.35 inches wide and 1.46
inches deep. It weighs 16.64 ounces
with battery pack. This isn’t a problem
unless you want to stuff the thing in
your pocket.
The real issue we had with it—and
others we tested—is the number of
AA batteries it requires: eight in all.
There is a NiCad option but Sporty’s
recommends using alkaline because
their storage life is more predictable
when used for backup emergency use.
To its credit, the duty cycle when running on alkaline is quite good. If you
limit your transmissions and display
lighting, its stamina is over 15 hours.
In our three weeks of testing, we
never had to change batteries.
The controls and lockable keypad
are hearty and easy to use. Simple
c h e c k li s t
Great performance at
reasonable cost.
Handy for ATIS and
clearances as well as
emergencies.
External antenna virtually
required for good range.
Portable Radios
STREET PRICE
SIZE
RECEIVER
STANDARD ACCESSORIES
ICOM IC-A24
$299
5.7 x 2.1 x 1.6
Com / VOR / NOAA WX
headset adapter, case,belt clip,
rechargeable battery pack
ICOM IC-A6
$249
5.7 x 2.1 x 1.6
COM / NOAA WX
headset adapter, case,belt clip,
rechargeable battery pack
ICOM IC-A14
$199
4.5 x 2.0 x 1.5
Com / VOR / NOAA WX
rechargeable battery pack,
belt clip, hand strap
Sporty’s SP-200
$299 direct
7.2 x 2.3 x 1.5
Com / VOR / LOC
AA battery pack,
wrist strap
Sporty’s SP-400
$399 direct
5.5 x 2.5 x 1.4
Com / VOR / LOC / GS
AA battery pack,
wrist strap
VERTEX VXA710
$299
4.5 x 2.5 x 1.2
Com / VOR / NOAA WX / BRS / FM
Lithium-Ion battery,
BNC antenna adapter
VERTEX VXA300
$219
5.5 x 2.5 x 1.4
Com / VOR / NOAA WX
NiMh battery, BNC antenna adapter,
headset adapter, belt clip
VERTEX VXA220
$179
4.0 x 2.4 x 1.2
COM / NOAA WX
NiMh battery, BNC antenna adapter,
headset adapter
volume and squelch knobs and a last
frequency recall button are nicely
spaced apart on the top of the case
while the transmit and display and
key light button are on the side. You
can easily pick this unit up and use
all of its features without touching the
manual. We especially liked the Clear
key that erases a digit if you botch
a frequency entry, and frequency
memory storage.
The nav side includes a VOR and
Localizer receiver that allows for OBS
selection and includes electronic CDI
at the top of the LCD display. We
found the nav receiver to be excellent,
with solid reception in the aircraft
and on the test bench using the BNC-
connected rubber antenna.
We wished the unit came with a
headset adapter as standard, but at
$199 it’s tough to complain. Popular
options include the NiCad battery,
external power plug, carry case and
spare AA battery cases.
Sporty’s offered us the first look at
the new $399 SP-400. Unique to this
unit is a glideslope receiver, which
could save your hide if you had to
slide down an ILS with a dark panel.
The SP-400 performed exceptionally well, with the localizer receiving
down to 115 dB and Glideslope down
to 95 dB going direct into the receiver.
Our technician marveled, admitting it
was better than some panel-mounted
gear. He was equally impressed with
the unit’s com performance, noting
crisp modulation and decent receiver
sensitivity. The unit has good transmit
sidetone (the sound of your voice you
hear when you transmit) with headsets.
The SP-400 is comfortable in hand
and the LCD display is sharp, but
we weren’t impressed with its side
viewing angle. This is common with
monochrome LCD screens. Display
backlighting helps.
Like the lesser SP-200, this unit
uses AA alkaline batteries that offered
plenty of juice during our testing. If
this unit was to be used as a primary
(and for some applications we think
it’s worthy) we suggest connecting an
external 12 volts. There’s a headset
adapter standard, but it impressed
us with clean modulation from
the internal microphone and a
reasonably-loud speaker.
ICOM
The popular A24 is the flagship
model from ICOM and features
com and nav functionality (the
A16 is an identical unit less
navigational functions). ICOM
brags of the unit’s single-handed
operation for use while flying and
it fits the task, in our view. With
battery pack it measures 5 3/32
Sporty’s SP-400 hits the target
of rugged construction and
simplicity without sacrificing
any essential functions. It’s also
the only unit with a glideslope
receiver.
Sporty’s SP-200 (center) is a bit
big. ICOMs (right-hand two) are a
good balance of small case and sizable buttons. Sporty’s new SP-400 is
about the size of the Vertex VXA-300
(second from left).
inches tall by 2 1/8 inches wide by
one inch thick, and weighs roughly 15
ounces. This proved to be a near perfect stature for a portable. When we
first started using the unit we found
some of the controls to be out of
place. For instance, the Squelch is adjusted by pressing a dedicated Squelch
key and then setting threshold with
the right rotary knob. We wished for
a dedicated, one-shot squelch adjustment.
Throughout our testing we grabbed
the more prominent rotary knob
at the top of the case to adjust the
volume. Wrong control. This knob
changes the frequency (a feature we
like rather than keying it in from the
keypad.) But even so, this knob we
found annoyingly close to the flexible
antenna.
The nav feature is easy to use and
offers both To/From navigation and
the current radial. It also shows a
CDI. It wasn’t as good a performer as
the Sporty’s in nav mode and seemed
susceptible to RF interference. We
like the NOAA weather radio alert
function when plugged into a wall
outlet (the weather function can
also be used when on the air-band).
There’s a 200-channel memory bank
for frequency storage, which might
be overkill. All the ICOM units have
a good display with easy-to-read
characters in all lighting conditions.
The unit has a 1650 mAh NiH battery
with excellent endurance. A double-A
pack is available.
ICOM’s A14 is a communicationsonly portable with a special 700mW
loudspeaker using a BTL amplifier
(essentially dual amplifiers that drive
both ends of a speaker load). For the
electronically challenged, this makes
the A14 output loud. So loud, in fact,
that we used the A14 while taxiing a
Grumman Tiger with its canopy slid
open and could easily communicate
with ground control during a maintenance run-up.
The copy we tested had the optional six-battery AA alkaline pack that
gave the unit a large footprint. Standard is the Li-Ion pack advertised at
18 hours of use. We like the simplicity
of the A14 as well as its rugged case
and easy to use buttons. We don’t care
for the squelch keys that are built into
the side of the case, below the trans-
Got Range? Try it with an external antenna
A watt of power broadcasting from a portable rubber
antenna inside a cabin isn’t going to offer much performance. Any chance of transmitting and receiving as far as
a panel-mounted com requires an external antenna.
The only real expense in installing a dedicated antenna
for the portable is opening the interior to mount it and
run coaxial cabling to a convenient spot in the cockpit. A
simple metal-element antenna is around $100. Fiberglass
whips are closer to $200. Some such installations include
a panel-mounted antenna jack while others simply have
antenna cable coiled up in a map pocket ready for quick
connection. You’d need an expensive splitter for a portable and a panel mount to share an antenna and it just
isn’t worth it for rare emergency use.
A beneficial time to install an auxiliary com antenna
system is when the aircraft is already opened up for other
work. If your shop is installing new primary com antennas there’s usually no reason not to utilize one of the
older antennas for emergency use. If you are pulling out a
now-useless Loran-C system, this leaves an open antenna
location for installing an aux com antenna. Your shop can
even use the existing coaxial cable.
mit key, that bring up a squelch value
on the display. We prefer a dedicated
knob.
Vertex Standard
We own an older Yaesu portable
amateur radio and can say that these
Vertex aviation units don’t come close
to the Yaesu we have grown to like.
We’re impressed by the small size,
as well as some smart features, but
remain unimpressed with the feel and
occasional quirkiness of the controls. We don’t like the SMA antenna
connections as it requires using an
included adaptor if connected to most
external antenna setups. It also took
us a bit to figure out the screw-in style
microphone and headphone jack at
the top of the case.
The smart features include a keypad
beep when punching in frequencies
(which the Sporty’s doesn’t have) and
the bright, dot-matrix displays. We
also like the battery-saver function
which sends the unit’s receiver into
hibernation mode when quiet.
One day we had the VXA300 and
ICOM A24 side by side on our desk
for testing and found the Vertex
would sometimes clip the first part of
a reception, receiving a second or so
after the ICOM. We assume this was
from the receiver coming out of hibernation. The transmitter was good:
over a watt of carrier on the scope and
a high-quality modulator.
The VXA-300 Pilot III is a com and
nav (the VXA-220 is com only but
with a loudspeaker). Controls are not
as intuitive as the Sporty’s or ICOM
models. For instance, the on/off rotary knob serves triple-duty as power,
volume and menu access. You press
the knob for accessing unit menus. It’s
not bad, just different and we envision some owners stumbling.
The VXA-300 performed well in
the real world and the unit’s stature
proved perfect for ease of carrying
and single-handed use. The nav receiver was spot on with the on-board
GNS430W. Interesting is variable audio tone (audio pitch, really) control
that can be set for a specific condition. We think panel-mounted radios
can benefit from this feature. There’s
also a voice-actuated function for
hands-off use. For instance, when a
headset is plugged in the unit will
automatically begin transmitting,
similar to a VOX
intercom.
The VXA-710
is a submersible, tiny com
and nav unit
measuring
4.5 inches by
2.5 inches
by 1.2 inches
that’s the absolute
smallest of the group. While it
may be easy to carry, its buttons
were just too small for our fingers.
The zero key was placed in an awkward location in the keypad. But
this wasn’t nearly as awkward as the
feature-set.
For days we couldn’t find a squelch
adjustment on the 710. We finally
reached for the manual and learned
it was buried in a menu. In fact, a
couple of times we turned the unit off
and then back on because we got so
lost in button-pushing. We think it’s
too complex for an airband backup or
primary.
Keypads and LCD screens are
illuminated in Vertex Standard’s
renowned Omni-Glow amber hue, for
increased visibility and minimal impact on your night vision. Omni-Glow
can be configured for both brightness
and contrast. We can’t come close to
covering all of the features that these
Vertex models offer, which gives you
an idea of how complex they are.
Conclusion
Gulf Coast Avionics in Lakeland, Florida, graciously provided us with many
of the test samples for this article. We
mention this because both ICOM and
Vertex ignored our requests for units
to review, while Sporty’s, on the other
hand, went above and beyond.
Perhaps each company was showing clairvoyance as our top pick is
the Sporty’s SP-400. Its performance
is clearly exceptional and worthy for
sole means navigation, including an
emergency ILS. At $395 before discounting it’s a solid bargain.
After using the SP-200 and 400, we
found ourselves annoyed by the busy
Part of the budget
SP-200’s bulk is the
eight-cell battery
pack. Alkalines do
have a more reliable
shelf life.
feature set of
the competitors.
Simple is better in
an aviation portable.
For a well-rounded,
reliable and featurerich portable, we have
no problem recommending the ICOM A24. but the
extra dough for the nav function is
questionable, in our view. We might
instead opt for the IC-A6. The way we
see it nearly everyone who flies IFR,
or even VFR, has a portable GPS that
would be superior to navigating by a
VOR using a handheld. If you are a
HAM we suspect you would be fond
of the VXA710, to add to your collection of radio toys.
Lastly, if you’re looking for decent in-flight performance from any
portable, install an external antenna.
That should ensure reliable communications when things go to hell—
which is why we buy these things in
the first place.
Larry Anglisano puts the screws to review
avionics at Exxel Avionics in Hartford,
Connecticut.
ContactS
ICOM
800-872-4266
www.icomamerica.com
Sporty’s Pilot Shop
800-776-7897
www.sportys.com
Vertex Standard
714-827-7600
www.vertexstandard.com
Reprinted from Aviation Consumer Copyright © 2010 Belvoir Media Group, LLC. Aviation Consumer is published monthly (12 issues) by Belvoir Media
Group, LLC, 800 Connecticut Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06854. Subscriptions are $39 annually. 800-829-9081. www.aviationconsumer.com