Letters have been replaced by email. Most people won’t call when they can text. Streaming music and video services are driving traditional broadcast stations and networks out of business.
But the venerable CB radio is still very much with us. In some ways, it’s better than ever.
Sportsmen who hike, fish or hunt often use CB for communication, since they either leave their phone at home, or can find themselves in areas where cell service is spotty or non-existent. The same goes for off-roaders; in fact, when they’re participating in rallies or club activities, CB radios are often required equipment. CBs are integral to any survivalist’s gear.
And of course, most long-haul truckers (and many RV owners) rely on their CB to communicate in real time with other drivers about road hazards, police activity and weather conditions, and to call for help in emergencies. Today’s best CB radios even can provide immediate weather alerts.
Their continued popularity means there are a ton of good CB radios on the market. Here are the best.
The CB Radios
1. President Electronics CB Radio
This is a full-featured CB unit with a wealth of features, sold at a very reasonable price. In addition to an RF gain control, it includes manual and automatic squelch control, automatic noise limiting, noise blanking and a hi-cut filter; they combine to provide outstanding control over reception of local and distant signals. On the transmission side, this is (as you can tell from the product name) a unit which has both AM and SSB capabilities, ideal for local communication as well as reliable longer-distance communication.
There are a number of other attractive features included on this President CB radio. It has seven dedicated weather channels with an “alert’ function that immediately tunes to NOAA weather broadcasts when appropriate. It has channel scan and three memory functions. It has an excellent internal SWR meter for antenna adjustments. You can set the radio to regularly scan channels 9 and 19 (emergency and traffic alert channels). And there are lesser features as well, including PA and talkback capability.
In short, the radio has all the features of a top performer – and its actual performance measures up. It’s even small enough (6.6 inches wide, 5.9 inches deep) to fit into almost any vehicle. The McKinley may not be the biggest name on this list, but it’s a terrific radio well worth its moderate price.
2. Uniden Bearcat CB Radio
Uniden is one of the big brand names in this field, and the Bearcat 880 is one of their best sellers. We understand why. It has most of the features available on the President McKinley, and it’s less expensive. It’s only our second choice, though, because it doesn’t have SSB transmission capability. (The Uniden Bearcat 980 does have SSB and isn’t that much pricier, if you’re focused on buying a Uniden model.)
This Bearcat has most of the features and filters you need for reliable reception, including RF gain, automatic noise limiting and noise blanking. It’s also notable for a multifunction onboard meter that can check SWL and calibration, among other things; the weather and scanning functions are good and similar to those on the McKinley.
In short, this is a very good CB radio if you don’t need the long-distance transmission ability provided by SSB. If you do, and want to stick with the well-known Uniden name, the Bearcat 980 is a step up that’s worth taking.
3. Cobra Professional CB Radio
This is an updated version of a CB radio that’s been around for fifty years. The 29LTD is a rather large unit (9.2” wide, 7.2” deep), but it’s solid and a reliable performer.
For a cost that’s lower than even the Uniden Bearcat, you wouldn’t expect the Cobra to have SSB capability – and it doesn’t. What it does have is RF gain, noise blanking, SWR calibration and instant switch to emergency channel 9; those are all features that turn a bare-bones AM CB model into a good one.
The one thing we were looking for but didn’t find (because it’s not there) is the NOAA weather channel. Other upper-level features like programmability and auto-scan aren’t there either, but at this price that’s not surprising. Everything else on the 29LTD is pretty standard, including PA functionality; it comes with a chrome face and black case, but if you want to pay an extra $30, you can get a black face and chrome case. We’re not sure we understand that price differential, but it’s there if you want to pay it.
4. Galaxy Audio CB Radio
Galaxy is another revered name in the radio industry, having made high-quality equipment for ham and CB radio for many decades. That reputation is well-earned, and the DX-939 fits right into the picture if you’re looking for an AM-only CB unit.
This model is almost as expensive as the President McKinley AM/SSB radio we’ve already reviewed, which wouldn’t seem to make sense – until you realize that a Galaxy radio is top of the line. This one is extremely well-designed, with a built-in five-digit LED frequency indicator and terrific backlit multi-function meter (SWR, modulation percentage, signal strength and power output), automatic SWR circuit and alert LED, and variable power output.
As you’d also expect from a high-end CB unit, there are RF gain, automatic noise limiter and noise blanker control circuits; the only things we wanted to see but didn’t were a weather channel and auto-scan. The DX-939 is a full-sized CB that’s been put into a mid-sized chassis for installation convenience – and it’s worth a long look, if you’re going to buy an AM-only model.
5. Uniden Pro-Series CB Radio
Here’s our budget choice, and it’s another Uniden. The PRO505XL is a compact unit which will fit almost anywhere; it doesn’t have many of the features of the Bearcat models we’ve looked at previously, but at about one-fifth the price that’s just fine with us.
This is an AM-only CB radio with no RF gain control, just squelch control. There’s no meter, just an LCD RF power/signal indicator; there’s no weather channel, but there is a one-touch emergency channel 9 button; there’s no channel selector knob, just up/down buttons so you have to step through the channels one-by-one.
However, the PRO505XL is a nicely-built, good performer that can let you communicate via AM CB for well under 50 bucks, and is only 4.5 inches wide. That’s a hard combination to beat for bargain hunters.
What to Look for in a CB Radio
There are three basic types of CB radio: base units (used either to communicate with fleets of vehicles or for “fun,” random conversations), walkie-talkies (used primarily by hobbyists and sportsmen), and mobile units. Some walkie-talkies come in an “all-in-one” design, allowing them to be mounted in a vehicle and removed for hand-held use when desired.
We’ve focused here on mobile CB radios, because those are the ones most people shop for. Whether you’re planning to install a CB in your truck, RV or car, you can choose from radios with an enormous variety of features in a wide range of price ranges.
A vehicle-mounted CB radio won’t do you much good if it doesn’t fit under your dashboard or into your passenger cabin – and that can pose a problem in smaller cars or cramped truck cabs. Most larger units have receivers which provide high-quality audio and lots of great features, but the smaller ones often tend to be bare-bones models, which may sound more like a tin can with a string attached to it.
There are exceptions, however, and our review of one decent smaller model (the Uniden PRO505XL) can be found above. Before making a purchase, be sure to measure the space you have available to mount a CB radio, and buy accordingly.
CB radios are also referred to as “transceivers,” because they perform two functions: transmitting and receiving.
The quality of the receiver and the transmitter in a CB radio are equally important, but a high-quality receiver will make the unit much easier to use. It will have the same 40 channels as a lower-quality one, but a good receiver will allow you to actually understand what people are saying, instead of having to decipher their words through a hash of static and background noise.
That makes the key audio feature of a CB unit the “RF gain” control, which in simple terms lets you adjust the receiver’s sensitivity. Cheap CB radios may not have an RF gain control, but it's an extremely valuable function.
When left wide open, you will hear lots of atmospheric noise in addition to voice transmissions. When the RF gain is dialed back, though, the receiver will eliminate most of the background hash so you can hear the transmissions more clearly. Why would you want to leave the gain wide open? It lets you hear far-away signals which might otherwise be filtered out along with the noise.
All CBs do come with a squelch control, which does much the same thing. It sets the baseline level at which you'll hear radio signals, filtering out the weaker ones. It will remove some of the background noise as well, but that's not its primary job. It's there to determine the range of signals your radio will pick up.
The best way to balance static and receiving distance is to adjust the RF gain and squelch controls until you find the optimal balance. That's why RF gain control on a CB radio is so important.
High-end receivers may have additional audio filters, like noise blanking, automatic noise limiting, clarifiers and hi-cut filters. All will help ensure cleaner, easier-to-understand reception, but at a higher cost. They're great to have, but not always necessary for simple communication on a CB radio.
One attribute of a CB radio doesn’t even need to be considered: its power. By law, all normal CBs can transmit at no more than four watts of power, and any model you buy will do just that.
There is one key feature that’s nice to have, but you’ll have to pay extra for it. All CB radios use the “regular” method of transmitting signals, known as “AM” (yes, that’s the same method that AM broadcast stations use). More expensive units may also have “SSB” (single sideband) capability, and it provides a number of advantages.
SSB transmissions (whether on the “lower” or “upper” sideband) are able to use up to 12 watts of power instead of four, and they’re a more efficient method of sending radio signals. The bottom line is that SSB lets you transmit over much greater distance than with standard AM signals.
However, you can’t receive SSB transmissions on an AM-only CB radio. Both sides of the communication must have SSB radios for it to work, so using SSB effectively limits the number of other users you can talk with. It’s a nice feature, but best used when regularly communicating with other SSB-equipped vehicles.
Other CB Radio Features to Consider
You can find CBs with all sorts of bells and whistles promoted by their manufacturers. Some, like LED backlighting or immediate access to channel 9 (the emergency channel) with the flip of a switch are important – but also included on just about every model. Others, like being able to dim the panel lights or use the CB as a PA system, are great if you want them, superfluous if you don’t.
Several functions, though, are extremely useful and usually worth any extra cost.
- SWR Meter: This meter measures the performance of the radio’s antenna system, and is invaluable if you’re taking the radio in and out of your vehicle (or regularly hit branches with your antenna). Less common but helpful is an antenna calibration meter to help maximize performance.
- NOAA Weather Channel: Many CBs let you receive broadcasts from the government’s weather channel, so you can keep abreast of weather conditions while on the road. Some even have a function that will automatically switch your radio to the NOAA channel when it broadcasts an important weather alert.
- Automatic Channel Scan: This eliminates hand cramping when switching from channel to channel in search of a signal. More seriously, it’s a good safety feature that keeps your hands on the wheel.
There are several more features available on a few high-end models which may interest you.
- Bluetooth Connection: At least one manufacturer offers models that let you connect to your phone via Bluetooth, so you can use your phone instead of the transceiver’s microphone and speaker.
- GPS: A few units have built-in GPS systems, allowing you to combine two pieces of essential on-the-road equipment into one.
CB radios aren’t used by hobbyists as much as they were back in the “breaker, breaker” days before cell phones. For many professional truckers and outdoor enthusiasts, however, they remain an important communication medium – at times, even a lifeline – and they are better and less expensive today than ever.