How We Tested
I’m Dan Roth, and I drive a lot. I’ve been covering cars and the business of cars since 2006. When I’m not driving, I work in broadcast, and that’s why I love things that modulate, oscillate, transmit, and receive. Radar detectors are closely related to broadcast equipment, so I understand how they work and I’m intrigued by the differences in performance among the brands.
To get the best sense of how a detector works, we used each model during the same commute. There were a couple of long highway trips away from ordinary locations as well to test the abilities of these units on the open road. The road conditions for each test included surface streets, residential and suburban areas, metro downtowns (NYC and Boston among them), and highways. Detectors were tested one-at-a-time to avoid any interference between units, and they were always mounted on the front windshield.
Most of the time, we were getting lit up by K-band. It’s a widely-used radar band for speed detection. X-band is old and mostly relegated to uses other than speed enforcement these days, though you may get a vintage surprise here and there. When the detectors alerted to Ka-band, it was a lot more likely that we’d come upon a cruiser soon after.
We used a fixed sign in town to test how early and consistently each unit could find and detect the radar, keeping speed and approach consistent, so we could make the test about detector sensitivity and capability, rather than other variables. Also on our daily route was a known and active speed trap, so we could get results out on the highway.
What is a Radar Detector?
The basic idea behind radar detectors is pretty simple. Because a radar or laser gun is generating and transmitting a signal–the units bounce a beam of microwave or laser energy off your car and measure how long it took to return–you can “tune in” to those signals. Think of a radar detector as a very sensitive radio that’s always in “seek” mode, constantly scanning.
How Do Radar Detectors Work?
Modern radar detectors use GPS and location databases to expand their capabilities. This is now possible because storage, computing power, and GPS technology itself have all gotten much less expensive. Some detectors go a different way and rely on the smartphones we all usually have with us for those functions. Lots of detectors now let users select which frequencies to ignore. If they’re not used in your area, you can reduce the amount of work the detector is doing, which can sometimes boost performance and lead to faster alerts for the frequencies you do care about.
Filtering out false warnings and range is what sets the best units apart. Getting a mile or more of warning lets you take calm corrective actions. And if the detector isn’t always crying wolf, your ride will be more serene.
Are Radar Detectors Really Undetectable?
Several detectors we tried, including both winners, claim to be “Spectre Elite Immune.” The Stalker Radar Spectre Elite is a popular unit used to sniff out even “undetectable” radar detectors. You see, just as a radar detector listens for the signals a radar or laser gun gives off, the Spectre Elite listens for the radio hardware that makes a radar detector work. Essentially, they leak. That leaked signal is more or less strong depending on the brand. If this is a concern, look for units that say they’re Spectore and VG-2 Immune. That means that they’ve been designed and built to minimize that signal leakage that could give them away.