What's a weather radio, and why do you need one?
The term "weather radio" actually has two different meanings. First, weather radio is a service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that puts out a constant stream of updates about upcoming weather events and other emergencies. In addition to weather, NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) issues alerts about natural disasters such as earthquakes and avalanches, environmental events such as oil spills, and public safety emergencies, including 911 service outages and Amber Alerts about abducted children. These messages go out on seven VHF frequencies specifically reserved for them, so you can't pick them up on a standard AM/FM radio. That leads to the second meaning of the term: A weather radio is any device capable of receiving these NWR broadcasts. When a natural disaster is on the way, a weather radio can make the difference between being trapped and making it to safety.
A desktop weather radio costs around $50. It can be plugged into an outlet most of the time and supplemented with backup batteries if the power goes out during an emergency. In addition to their NWR function, most weather radios can double as AM/FM radios or alarm clocks. If you're listening to music when an NWR alert comes in, the radio will automatically interrupt the broadcast to give you the news. To keep your listening from being interrupted with alerts that don't affect you, the best weather radios include a feature called Specific Alert Message Encoding (SAME). With SAME, you can elect to hear only the alerts that apply to your specific location. Some weather radios also let you filter out alerts that are of no interest -- such as a frost warning for someone who lives in the city. Cutting down on irrelevant alerts helps make sure that you pay attention to the ones that could directly affect you.
One specialized type of weather radio is the emergency radio, usually priced around $45. While a standard weather radio informs you about emergencies as they develop, an emergency radio helps you keep abreast of the situation while it's in progress. Most of these radios can run off battery power for a couple of hours or longer, but also include crank-driven generators that can keep them running during a prolonged power outage when no batteries can be found. Most crank radios cover standard AM and FM bands, as well as the weather bands, and some include extra features such as a flashlight and a cellphone charger. These features can be lifesavers during emergencies, but they're also useful for more pleasant occasions, such as camping or hiking trips. However, most crank radios do not include features like SAME or selectable alerts.
To identify the best weather radios and emergency radios, we considered four major factors. First, we looked at performance. The most important consideration here was how clearly and consistently the NWR alerts come through, but we also looked at factors like AM/FM reception, sound quality and battery life. Next, we considered features that improve usability, such as SAME and selectable alerts, or add extra functions, such as a clock radio or a cellphone charger. Third, we evaluated ease of use, including the ease of setting up the radio to receive alerts for your area. And finally, we looked at overall value, factoring in price, durability and customer service. We looked at a few expert reviews, but most of our information comes from users who can provide first-hand accounts of how a weather radio performs when it is needed most -- before and during an actual emergency.
Best Weather Radios
Good picks for weather radios at every price level
Among desktop weather radios, no model gets more consistently positive reviews than the Sangean CL-100 (Est. $60). It's a bit pricey for a weather radio, but reviews indicate that its features and performance justify the price tag. It includes nearly every feature you could ask for in a weather radio: Public Alert certification, SAME technology, selectable alerts and a memory function that stores the last 20 alert messages. Users especially appreciate the fact that the CL-100 automatically shuts down at the end of a broadcast alert, rather than waiting for you to get up and turn it off.
Moreover, reviewers say that the Sangean CL-100 is not just a great weather radio; it's a great radio, period. Users at Amazon.com say it has good FM reception, and its sound quality is far better than you'd expect from a weather radio. It also includes RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System), which provides additional information in text form about radio broadcasts, and functions as an alarm clock (in either music or buzzer mode). Owners are impressed with the CL-100's build quality, and most of them describe it as very easy to set up and use. However, the few owners who ran into problems say that Sangean's technical support is disappointing.
The Midland WR-300 (Est. $45) receives far more feedback from reviewers than the Sangean CL-100, but it's much more mixed. Like the CL-100, this weather radio is Public Alert-certified and SAME-equipped, with selectable alerts. However, unlike the Sangean, it doesn't shut off automatically at the end of an alert message, a feature many users say can be really annoying in the middle of the night. Also, while the Midland can double as an AM/FM clock radio, most users say these additional features don't work nearly as well as its weather alerts. However, the main weakness of the Midland radio is reliability. Some users say the device stopped receiving alerts after a period of several months, while others say it never worked properly.
The Reecom R-1630 (Est. $40) doesn't have nearly as much feedback from users as either the Midland or the Sangean. However, it's the most recommended weather radio at sites for radio buffs, such as eHam.net, RadioReference.com and WXForum.net. Users there praise its sensitivity, easy setup, reliable performance, and wealth of features. Unlike the Sangean and the Midland, it doesn't double as an AM/FM radio, but it does include all their other features-including the end-of-message (EOM) response that the Midland so annoyingly lacks. This radio might have earned our Best Reviewed title had we not found one complaint popping up over and over in user reviews at Amazon.com: Reecom's customer service is absolutely awful. While the Reecom radio has far fewer complaints about malfunctions than the Midland, the few users who had problems say that Reecom's representatives are rude and unresponsive, and it's all but impossible to get them to honor their one-year warranty. One user at WXForum.net who admits that Reecom makes great radios says, "the way Reecom treats their customers with issues has me no longer endorsing their products."
If you just need a cheap, reliable weather radio, and you don't care about extra functions like AM/FM reception, then the Midland WR-120 (Est. $30) may be your best bet. This stripped-down version of the WR-300 actually gets better overall reviews from owners; there are still a few complaints about malfunctions, but most owners describe it as very accurate and reliable. Their biggest complaint is that unlike the pricier WR-300, the WR-120 doesn't let you block unwanted alerts-a frustrating feature for owners who don't want to be awakened in the middle of the night for a non-life-threatening weather event. Users generally have less trouble programming the WR-120 than they do with the WR-300, but some owners still find it difficult.