Sure, you could possibly stumble upon lost treasure by dumb luck. But if you're really interested in hunting for coins, jewelry, and even silver and gold that's hiding at the beach, underwater, or off on some woodsy trail, you'll want to have a good metal detector.
You may have seen someone using one of these devices, which emit a mysterious assortment of tones as it is swept across the ground. But how do metal detectors work?
A metal detector sends out a signal at a specific frequency into the area below the device's plate, and any metallic objects nearby will provide feedback to the detector. This information translates into the detector emitting different sounds, which indicate different kinds of metal.
Modern metal detectors include a display on their control box to help you better interpret the sounds coming from the device and avoid digging up unwanted items. While not all displays feature the same information, they often provide details such as the general depth of items, their iron content, and their conductivity. Lower conductivity implies iron, while higher conductivity can signal more valuable metals such as silver or gold.
Other common features on metal detectors include: options to amplify or “mute” iron signals, so you can ignore or specifically identify objects with a high iron content; ground balancing, which helps you even out any signal interference from highly mineralized soil; and, in the case of some specialty gold detectors, discrimination settings that help eliminate interference from hot rocks and other metals and minerals that can be found nearby.
Most detectors can’t search past 8 inches of soil, due to the frequencies used being fairly low (7-18 kHZ). But some models used for gold prospecting (yes, there’s still gold in them hills!) can penetrate deeper. They use much higher frequencies to take advantage of gold’s highly conductive properties.
Metal detector buying guide
Metal detecting can have a great deal of nuance. If you’re looking to pick it up as a hobby, make sure to look for these main features when shopping for a device:
• Preset modes. Metal detectors work by producing specific noises whenever you scan an area with metallic items in it. There are additional settings that can help you fine-tune the signal to locate specifically the kinds of items you’re looking for. But if you’re just starting out, it can be hard to find the correct balance. A handful of preset modes on your metal detector (such as “jewelry”, “coins”, etc.) can help you strike gold — literally or metaphorically — much quicker.
• Discrimination settings. Metal detectors can be programmed to ignore “hits” from unwanted items, if you learn to recognize the specific signals they produce. These discrimination settings can be crucial when hunting in areas full of low-value items such as pull tabs, tin foil wrappers, and other junk that will distract you from your main targets.
• Iron audio settings. Different metal detector makers include some form of "iron audio" feature to help you avoid iron and focus on more valuable targets. For example, Garrett’s trademark version is in fact called Iron Audio, and it amplifies iron signals. Other makers feature an iron masking variant, which helps you sift through iron-infested areas and find more valuable metals.
Best metal detectors
1. Editor's pick: Garrett AT Pro Metal Detector
A good entry-level metal detector includes features and settings that help you get started right away. These models usually only work best in a single type of environment (beach, freshwater, saltwater, desert terrain). So, before too long, you may find yourself looking for a different device to expand your search range. The AT Pro balances user-friendliness with more advanced features, while also being able to handle almost every type of terrain you might search.
This model comes with common features such as preset search modes, Iron Audio and Garrett’s digital target ID feature, which helps identify materials on a range of 0-99. It also boasts a higher search frequency of 15kHz that lets it find materials with higher precision — and even identify gold nuggets under certain circumstances.
The most notable feature, however, is its two audio settings (Standard and Pro), which are essentially toggles between the basic tones one might hear with standard metal detectors and a “professional” audio mode that provides a more nuanced sequence of tones depending on which materials you’re detecting. Unlike many of Garrett’s less advanced models, the AT Pro allows for manual ground balancing, which helps you fine-tune your search settings in highly mineralized soil like saltwater beaches.
This model usually costs around $700, which is a fairly significant expense. Still, novices with spare funds and other treasure hunters looking to step up their game will find the AT Pro to be a solid long-term investment.
2. Best for low prices: Garrett ACE 400 Metal Detector
Metal detecting can be a fun and rewarding (read: lucrative) hobby, though it certainly has a learning curve. Mostly, that means sorting through dud finds before you get any actual valuable treasure. Luckily for those looking to get started, Garrett’s ACE 400 has many features that eliminate much of the guesswork.
It comes with five preset detection modes to help you target specific items: coins, jewelry, relics, “zero-disc” (all metals), and a custom setting that will locate items you may have found before and don’t necessarily fall under other preset categories. It also includes a Digital Target ID feature, which displays the conductivity of detected items on a scale of 0-99, along with a printed reference scale on the top of the display.
Another important feature is its Iron Audio function, which allows you to locate junk iron targets and avoid digging up unwanted items. As a nice bonus, the ACE 400 is very light (only 2.9 pounds), meaning it could even be used by children.
Its main downside is a lack of manual ground balancing, which helps you fine-tune your search in highly mineralized soil (think: saltwater beaches, or ground full of naturally occurring metals). Even so, it’s a good option for most beginners, who will want to master the basics of metal detecting before trying to handle such technical adjustments.
3. Best all-terrain detector: Minelab CTX 3030
If you’re serious about metal detecting, you’re going to need a machine that can operate in any environment while also providing the most accurate readings possible. Minelab’s CTX 3030 is hands-down one of the best metal detectors for any situation.
In terms of basic functionality, its multi-frequency feature allows it to produce cleaner signals from objects hidden deep underground, even beyond 8 inches, which is where most standard detectors begin to struggle. This feature also means that you will be able to pick up distinct signals from multiple items at the same time, quickly helping to determine if the current search area is worth your time.
This model comes with preset search modes, including some that are standard to other detectors, such as coins and relics, but also beach, silver, and high trash modes. There are five additional custom mode slots so you can further customize your search preferences. The CTX 3030’s LCD display provides a wealth of background information on your search, such as item depth, conductivity, and iron content.
Most notably, this device features a GPS function that automatically logs areas you’ve searched before and allows you to pinpoint them on a computer map, even offering the option to add notes and pictures to previous searches. As a result, it’s easy to keep detailed search logs. High performance and a multitude of features does come at a price, however, yet even at $2,500 serious metal detector enthusiasts can certainly get their money’s worth.
4. Best for underwater: Minelab Excalibur II
Metal detectors are pretty versatile machines. Many models can even handle being submerged in up to 10 feet of water in the course of your search. However, if you want to dive deeper than that, you’re going to need a sturdier and more powerful device to make up for all the interference that being underwater brings. The Excalibur II fits the bill.
Though it lacks some novice-friendly features found in many models, such as preset search modes, the Excalibur II was built to perform under difficult conditions. It includes Minelab’s multi-frequency feature, which sends out signals at 17 different frequencies simultaneously, along with the Iron Masking feature, which automatically eliminates noise from junk targets. The combination of these two features alone will have you finding coins, relics, and more at a much faster pace.
This model’s main draw is the fact that it can go up to 200 feet underwater, letting you combine metal detecting with diving and opening up more possibilities for you to find things. It also works excellently outside of water and is able to handle highly mineralized soils since it was built with deep water environments in mind.
Because it is such a powerful machine that function nearly anywhere, it is considerably expensive. You can easily expect to pay at least $1,500 for a brand-new model.
5. Best for finding gold: Nokta Gold Kruzer Waterproof Metal Detector
Though the days of old-timey prospectors wielding pickaxes and dressed in long johns are long gone, gold prospecting is alive and well today. Specialized metal detectors make the task of finding gold nuggets considerably easier. Nokta Gold Kruzer is a powerful unit that can help you find gold nuggets big and small in difficult, high-interference terrain.
What makes this unit particularly useful for gold prospecting is its 61kHz operating frequency, which helps identify highly conductive gold nuggets more easily. It also sports four distinct operating modes, which allow you to make adjustments for different environments and circumstances: relatively clean soil with little interference, terrain full of hot rocks, and terrain full of other metals and minerals that can disrupt the signals that gold produces, and a "micro" mode for areas littered with small, easily masked bits of gold.
The Gold Kruzer is also highly weather-resistant, so it's ideal for places where sudden rain or dust storms would otherwise cut a search short. Features such as preset modes and discrimination settings — common to other metal detectors — are available as well, making it viable for all types of metal detecting, though gold prospecting remains its strong suit.