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 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.
Types of Weather Radios
Desktop Weather Radios
A desktop weather radio costs between $25 and $60. 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, some weather radios can double as AM/FM radios; 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 Area Message Encoding (SAME). With SAME, you can elect to only hear 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 an emergency radio. 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, but also include crank-driven generators (and sometimes solar panels) 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 radios 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. Emergency radios usually cost about the same as desktop weather radios -- between $25 and $60, depending on features.
Finding The Best Weather Radios
"The Best Emergency Weather Radio"
"Best Crank Radios of 2017"
"What You Should Know About Configuring Your Sangean CL-100 Clock Radio"
Wirecutter and Top Ten Reviews conduct helpful tests of
emergency radios – draining their batteries, dunking them under the
shower and hiking with them back of beyond to find out which will be most
useful in a crisis. For desktop weather radios, though, recent credible expert
reviews are hard to come by. Instead, most of the recommendations in this
report are based on feedback from retail sites, such as Amazon and Best Buy;
user forums, such as eHam.net and WXForum; and enthusiast blogs.
alert radios that keep you in the know
Among desktop weather radios, no model gets more
consistently positive reviews than the (Est. $55). It includes
nearly every feature you could ask for in a weather radio: Public Alert
certification (see the Buying Guide for more information), 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 say it has
good FM reception, and its sound quality is far better than you'd expect from a
weather radio. Radio enthusiast Jeff McMahon even uses the CL-100 as his
bedside clock radio: AM reception in particular is "amazing for a radio
this small," he writes on his blog, Herculodge.
The Sangean CL-100 also includes RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data
System) compatibility, 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
Sangean has a one-year warranty.
The (Est. $60) receives
far more feedback from reviewers than the Sangean CL-100, but that feedback is
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. But 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. Midland
has introduced a newer version, the (Est. $65);
its main difference is that it includes a USB port to charge phones, tablets,
etc. We can't render a judgement on the WR400, however, as it's received no
credible expert reviews, and even user feedback is limited. Midland radios have
a one-year warranty.
The (Est. $55) doesn't
have nearly as much feedback as either the Midland WR 300 or the Sangean CL-100
from experts or users at retail sites such as Amazon. However, it's the most
recommended weather radio at sites for radio buffs, such as eHam.net and WXForum.
Users there praise its sensitivity, easy setup, reliable performance and wealth
of features. While it has lots of key features, such as the end-of-message
(EOM) response that the Midland so annoyingly lacks, other useful features,
such as the ability to receive standard AM/FM broadcasts, are missing.
Reliability appears high based on the feedback that's available at Amazon and
elsewhere, but with a caveat -- 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.
If you just need a cheap, reliable weather radio, the (Est. $30) is your best bet. This stripped-down version of the WR300 actually
gets better overall reviews from owners than its pricier sibling; 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 WR300, the
WR120 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. It also lacks AM/FM/clock radio
functionality, but given how poorly those features are regarded on the WR300,
that might not be all that much of a loss. Users generally have less trouble
programming the WR120 than they do with the WR300, but a few owners still find