The Best Police Scanners for Your Money
Are you interested in keeping tabs on the activities of police, fire departments and other public safety agencies in your community? Despite the advent of smartphones, services like these still use two-way radio communication, and you can listen in and hear about all the latest emergencies, storm alerts, traffic accidents and other local chatter if you have a police scanner.
A police scanner (formally known as a radio scanner) can pick up radio communication transmissions from local law enforcement authorities as well as fire departments, ambulances, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aircrafts and watercrafts (both civil and military) and more.
With a police scanner, you can eavesdrop on all nearby frequencies — basically everything transmitted by radio except for phone calls and encrypted signals.
Police scanner apps
Nowadays, there are several police and radio scanner apps available for Apple and Android devices. These apps give users access to thousands of police, fire and medical emergency communications around the country for $5 or less (sometimes even free). So, why spend hundreds on an actual police scanner?
The apps only transmit the audio communications that agencies decide to make publicly available. So, if your local fire department doesn't offer a live feed, you won't be able to hear their communications.
Apps sometimes also transmit feeds from volunteers who share what their personal scanners pick up. However, with a full-featured police scanner, you can manually input the frequencies of all nearby agencies, so you don't miss out on any news. Some models can automatically locate nearby frequencies too.
Basically, a police scanner app is a decent option for anyone who wants to get a hint of what radio scanning is all about without spending hundreds of dollars. However, anyone interested in radio scanning as a serious hobby will probably need to invest in an actual scanner.
Police scanner buying guide
Tracking local events with police scanners has been a popular hobby for many years. Beyond the entertainment and gossip you can get out of such a device, a police scanner can be an invaluable security tool. By tuning into the frequencies of your local emergency services, you can keep one step ahead of crime incidents, traffic accidents, fires and severe weather events even before news outlets report them.
It’s worth noting that some of these devices have a steep learning curve. Even seasoned users sometimes face complications, especially when they purchase a new model. If you’ve never used one before, it may take some trial and error to program and maximize its detection capabilities in your area.
Also, you should know that most of the programming software for scanners is made for Windows. So, if you don’t own a computer with a Windows operating system (alert: Mac users!), programming or updating the police scanner might prove to be difficult.
However, there are professionals who can program the scanner for you (for a price, of course), based on your location. In addition to independent scanner radio programming services, the scanner manufacturer Uniden offers programing services for around $40 to $100.
These are the main factors to take into account when shopping for a police scanner:
• Model type. There are two types of police scanners: base and handheld.
Base models usually cost $300 or more and are meant to be used mainly in home settings. Some can also be mounted in vehicles.
Handheld scanners are more compact and run on batteries for complete portability. In the past, they were usually cheaper (around $200), but that meant a weaker antenna and less frequency storage. Nowadays, many handheld models’ power and frequencies are on par with the capabilities of their base counterparts. However, this hikes up their price tags as well.
• Analog or digital format. Figuring out whether you need a digital or analog scanner is perhaps the most important factor when choosing a police scanner. If you buy one that’s only capable of detecting analog signals, and agencies in your area use digital signals, the scanner simply won’t pick up any transmissions.
To figure out if your area's signals are analog or digital, look up your city or county at RadioReference.com. This site provides a detailed list of all available frequencies in your area, what agency or service they belong to and their mode — that is, whether they’re analog or digital. Analog signals will be labeled as AM or FM and digital signals have labels such as P25 or DMR.
Most frequencies are now digital, or will eventually be, so you might be better off purchasing a digital model from the start. But not every digital scanner can pick up all known digital signals. Before buying a scanner, make sure the label explicitly states it detects the signals you need.
• Location-based search. Years ago, police scanners didn’t pick up any signals unless the user manually entered the frequency they wanted to listen to. Some newer models are pre-programmed to access a nationwide database of frequencies.
These pre-programmed scanners generally feature location-based scanning. Just enter your zip code, and it’ll tune to everything that’s nearby. Some models also have GPS capability so the scanner can detect changes in location and update the frequencies as you move.
Best police scanners
1. Best overall: Uniden BCD536HP HomePatrol Series Base/Mobile Scanner
The Uniden BCD536HP is an excellent digital police scanner for novice and experienced users alike. It comes pre-programmed with access to over 10,000 frequencies in the U.S. and Canada. Simply turn on the unit, enter your zip code and the scanner automatically detects channels for police and fire departments, emergency medical services (EMS) and weather alerts within a 20- to 50-mile radius.
Available frequencies are not limited to pre-programmed ones either. The included database can be updated using a computer, and the unit has a scanning feature that discovers nearby frequencies that may not be already registered. If the scanner is going to be installed in a vehicle used for frequent travel, hook it up to Uniden’s GPS receiver (sold separately for $120), and it will continuously adjust to local frequencies while on the move.
It comes with a 4GB microSD memory card (that may be upgraded to 32GB) to let you record and replay transmissions. This model also gives you the power to store lists of your favorite frequencies, create custom searches (with specific ranges and transmissions you’d like the scanner to avoid), set up custom alerts for when the scanner detects activity, and scan based on service type (police, fire, medical emergencies, to name a few examples).
Its scanning and customization capabilities alone make it a top-of-the-line scanner. But one feature that makes the BCD536HP stand out from others in its price range (about $500) is its Wi-Fi capability. Connect the scanner to your smartphone or tablet using Uniden’s Siren app — available for both Android and iOS — and then you're able to control the scanner remotely, while listening to the transmission directly on your mobile device.
Note that while this could be a selling point, some users are dissatisfied with the app’s functionality, claiming that it crashes frequently.
2. Editor’s pick: Uniden BCD996P2 Digital Scanner
The Uniden BCD996P2 is ideal for anyone interested in taking up radio scanning as a serious hobby. Priced at around $400, it offers pretty much everything top-of-the-line models do at a lower price.
It can pick up both analog and digital signals but, unlike the BCD536HP, it’s not pre-programmed so you’ll need to input frequencies manually. This may seem complex for a beginner, but scanner enthusiasts say this process can actually prove enjoyable for people who are truly interested in mastering their new hobby. (If it ends up proving too difficult, look for scanner programming service online. With these services you send over your scanner, and an expert will do the programming for you.)
The BCD996P2 can detect certain nearby transmissions on its own without programming; however, the range isn’t always consistent and the signals must be extremely strong in order to be picked up.
The BCD996P2 has enough memory to store up to 25,000 channels, along with number tags that allow you to quickly switch between frequencies without going through them one by one (or dialing them manually each time). You can assign number tags to service searches (police, fire, and EMS signals) or custom search ranges you’ve created as well.
Other useful features include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerts, a list of priority channels that you want to scan continuously while listening to other transmissions, a key lock to prevent unwanted modifications, 100 quick keys for your customized scanning parameters and alerts for specific channels with different tone and volume patterns.
3. Best for low prices: Whistler WS1025 Analog Desktop Scanner
If what you want is a basic but reliable scanner for a very reasonable price, the Whistler WS1025 analog scanner fits the bill nicely. For around $100, this scanner can access emergency weather alerts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and frequencies used by storm spotter networks — teams of volunteers that provide reports directly to the National Weather Service.
The Whistler WS1025 is an analog scanner, so your access to police, fire and medical emergencies departments may be limited (frequencies used by services in larger metropolitan areas nowadays are usually digital). But if you live in a smaller town, and the signals you’re interested in are analog, look no further.
The WS1025 has enough memory to store up to 200 channels. You can input frequencies manually or with a computer and categorize them into separate banks or lists based on signal type (fire, police, marine, aircraft and weather). You can also set a priority channel to be scanned every two seconds, even when you’re searching for other available frequencies.
4. Best scanner CB radio combo: Uniden BearTracker 885 Hybrid CB Radio + Digital Scanner
Police scanners and CB radios look fairly similar but don’t share the same capabilities. Police scanners let you tune in and listen to radio transmissions sometimes up to 50 miles away. CB radios — the kind of devices truck drivers often use, for example — only detect transmission from other CB radios at a shorter distance (20 miles or less), while also letting you talk to other users.
The Uniden’s BearTracker 885 combines both of these devices into a single unit. It lets you chat with other CB radio users while scanning for analog and digital signals to listen to.
It comes pre-programmed with a nationwide frequency database, to make it easy to begin listening to nearby radio transmissions. With a built-in GPS, it will automatically detect and switch between nearby frequencies without the need to reprogram as you travel. It can also send alerts when it detects nearby public safety transmissions.
Uniden has an online update manager designed specifically for the BearTracker 885, so you can update the scanner’s database as you need. The company's website states databases are updated weekly.
5. Best handheld police scanner: Whistler TRX-1 Handheld Digital Scanner Radio
The Whistler TRX-1 packs all the features of high-end base digital police scanners into a handheld unit.
This model is pre-programmed with access to a nationwide database of frequencies, and it's possible to store up to 200 lists or groups of preferred frequencies. It also features an additional list specifically dedicated to transmissions from Skywarn, a network of over 350,000 volunteers that track weather conditions. Whistler offers database (and firmware) updates through its website, and you can manually input frequencies as needed.
What's more, you can set custom alarms to notify you whenever a frequency becomes active. For example, the LED can display a flash of red and blue light (much like a police strobe light) whenever the scanner picks up police transmissions. With the alarm clock function, the unit will turn on and starts scanning at a specific time each day.
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