We test Raymarine’s Ray90, a black box VHF radio with wireless handsets and Bluetooth audio

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I believe that VHF radios from the big four MFD manufacturers are primarily offered so that boat builders and customers can put a single brand of electronics at the helm. For that reason, my normal advice is to consider getting a VHF radio (and AIS transponder) from a specialist manufacturer that may offer fuller-featured, better-performing equipment. However, I’ve reconsidered that recommendation following a test of the new Raymarine Ray90. The 90 is a compelling VHF regardless of your brand of MFD. Plus, I discovered an interesting Bluetooth feature.

The black box architecture allows the Ray90 to serve two helms and roaming crew, although the handset and optional speaker consume little helm space. These radios also allow separate power control of each handset, which I appreciate with family aboard. My boat previously had a fixed-mount VHF with a second-station mic at the lower helm. Power controlled the whole radio, so it was all stations on or all off.

Installation of the radio is straightforward. Once the necessary connections for power, VHF antenna and at least one handset have been made the radio powers up, asks for an MMSI and is ready to go. If you’re connecting wireless handsets you will need to configure or confirm the default settings for SSID (wireless network name) and WiFi password. That information is then input into the wireless handsets after which they will connect and also be ready for action.

I found the handsets quite responsive. They have relatively few buttons so most functions are accessed through the menu system. This includes some functions, like weather, that you might find dedicated buttons for on a fixed mount radio with more space for controls. With the Ray90’s straightforward menus it was easy to find everything, but several button presses are required for most functions. Incidentally, the radios support scanning all channels or scanning a saved list of favorites, and each mode can be scanned with or without 16 as a priority channel.

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I found DSC support between the Ray90 and my Axiom MFDs worked well. I was able to request a position from another DSC radio and immediately upon reply a message popped up on my Axioms. I tried the same test on both my Garmin and Simrad MFDs with mixed results. I eventually found a position report in the DSC log on the Garmin 1242XSV Touch but never could find anything on the Simrad NSS EVO3. I suspect few people use position request and sharing capabilities, but NMEA-2000 connectivity does make the connections more straightforward and allows you to track other radios, including those on buddy boats and dinghies.

The wireless handsets set the Ray90 apart from other radios I’ve used and tested. The Ray90 is among the few marine VHFs I know of that utilize WiFi for wireless handset support. I’m a fan of reusing a well-established and engineered standard for wireless, and while I have some concerns about the 2.4ghz WiFi band selection, thus far the Ray90 hasn’t revealed any troubles. In fact, I’ve been able to use the wireless handset about 150 feet down the dock. Though a handheld VHF is always an option, there’s a lot of value to the wireless handset controlling a 25-watt transmitter with a tall antenna mounted high on the vessel.

The cradle for the wireless handheld contains an inductive charger, so the handset is being charged any time it’s in the cradle. I found battery life to be at least 12 hours with the radio monitoring 16 in the Tampa Bay area and making periodic transmissions. Honestly, I had to remind myself not to return it to the cradle so I could test battery life since it’s so easy to just drop it back in its cradle. Standard Horizon is using USB charging for its wireless handsets, an arrangement I would find much less convenient. But Standard’s RAM 4/4W handsets have separate knobs for volume and squelch, an arrangement I find preferable to Raymarine’s use of buttons to adjust these settings.

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While perusing the FCC filings for the radio I noticed interior shots of a Bluetooth radio and antenna. Intrigued, I asked Raymarine if Bluetooth was used on the radio. They sent me a diagram explaining that they allow wireless pairing to their active speaker to give installers flexibility in locating the components. Because of the large number of queries I’ve seen regarding Bluetooth support for noisy environments and for hearing-aids I was quite interested in seeing if a generic Bluetooth device could be paired.

So I grabbed a Bluetooth speaker and tried to pair it to my wireless handset. Lo and behold, in about 15 seconds it was paired and audio was blasting out of the speaker. Even better, pairing to the speaker doesn’t disable audio output out of the Ray90 wireless handset.

Next up was a Bluetooth headset. That too paired easily, though only listening is supported. I can’t use the headset’s microphone transmit over VHF, but I can roam the boat with my wireless handset nearby and the Bluetooth headset delivering hands-free VHF.

That roaming made me wish that Raymarine included a belt clip for the wireless handset. I can probably find something that will work with the stainless-steel mushroom that secures the mic in the cradle, but shouldn’t it come in the box? Also, the FCC filings indicate that only the wireless handset has Bluetooth, so if you’re interested in using Bluetooth audio you will need at least one wireless handset and hub.

The intercom feature on the Ray90 can come in handy, especially given its wireless capabilities. The intercom is half-duplex, so only one party can talk at a time while a free hand is needed to press the transmit button—thus, I don’t think it replaces good full duplex headsets for situations like docking. But it’s likely to work better than shouting on larger boats. Plus, Raymarine put some thought into an easy intercom interface.

As I said, I expected a test of the Ray90 to be a simple check-the-box offering for people buying a full Raymarine suite. I am pleasantly surprised with what I found. But I also noticed a few things that could be improved. For instance, my wireless handset’s LCD screen is set slightly crooked in the frame of the display. (It’s pretty minor but it’s also the sort of thing that drives me a little nuts.) And although the radios support share brightness with other Raymarine devices, the backlight brightness doesn’t seem to be remembered between power cycles. I had to set the backlight each time I powered on the radio.

There’s a lot of flexibility in configuring these radios. The Ray90 ($950) or AIS-receiver-equipped Ray91 ($1,050) each includes one wired handset along with a passive speaker, mounting hardware and a NMEA 2000 to SeaTalk NG adapter cable. A wired second station pack ($500) includes mic, speaker and cable. The first wireless station pack is $700 with the wireless hub, wireless handset, charging cradle and active speaker; additional wireless station packs are $500 with the handset, cradle and active speaker included. These components can all also be purchased individually.

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