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How to Pick a CB Radio

by Andrew Youderian

So you've decided to get a CB radio for your vehicle? Great! Now comes the tricky part. There is a wide range of radios on the market, and they come with a dizzying number of options. To decide which radio will best suit your needs, you'll need to keep these considerations in mind.

The universal FCC transmission limitation

You may be surprised to learn that all CB radios, regardless of size or price, have exactly the same transmission power out of the box. This even playing field is a result of the Federal Communications Commission's 4-watt power restriction for all CB radios. While it's possible to have your CB radio "peaked and tuned" after purchase (a process by which a radio technician adjusts the radio to achieve additional transmission range), all CB radios are shipped with exactly the same transmission wattage. With the transmission power a constant factor, choosing a CB radio becomes an exercise in determining what features are most important to you.

Common CB radio features

CB radios range in price between $50, which will get you a bare-bones radio, and $200, which buys you a fully loaded, top-of-the-line model. Carefully evaluating which features you'll use the most will allow you to get the most value from your radio. Some common CB features are explained below:

Backlit displays

If you'll be operating your CB regularly at night, you should consider a backlit display. As the name implies, this feature illuminates the entire CB display for easy operation in dark conditions.

Weather capabilities

Features that allow users to receive real-time weather updates are some of the most popular add-ons for CBs. Some models even issue severe weather alerts when the CB radio is turned off.

Channel scanning

If you'll be using your CB primarily for recreational purposes, channel scanning is a great feature to have. Channel scanning allows you to automatically scan all available CB channels for activity, ensuring you'll know of anything happening on the airwaves.

Public address (PA) capabilities

With the addition of an external PA speaker, this feature allows you to use the radio and handset as a public address system. With the speaker mounted outside the vehicle (often underneath the hood) the system can be used to address large groups and is both a useful and an entertaining feature.

Single Side Band (SSB)

Found on higher-end radios, SSB allows you to make use of the frequencies both above and below each standard CB channel. Without getting too technical, this feature makes use of a smaller frequency spectrum and provides two significant benefits: access to 80 additional channels and the ability to legally transmit at 12 watts of power without needing a FCC license. While the additional transmission power is extremely attractive to some users, remember that only other SSB users can receive your SSB signal and respond to you. Luckily, all SSB radios support standard AM-mode operations to allow for communications with non-SSB CB users. For more information about how SSB works, read Bruce Clark's explanations.

RF (Radio Frequency) gain

This feature allows the radio operator to filter transmissions being received according to signal strength. It's extremely useful for isolating a weak signal amid a barrage of stronger transmissions, or to block out background noise when communicating with someone nearby.

Built-in meters

Many higher-end radios include a meter that displays transmission and reception strength, as well as Standing Wave Radio (SWR) antenna readings. While built-in SWR meters aren't nearly as accurate as stand-alone meters, they are useful for quickly identifying potential antenna problems.

Radio size considerations

One important radio feature that is often overlooked is size. CB radios range in size from small, hand-held units to large, full-chassis units. It's important to consider where your radio will be mounted and to pick a CB that will fit conveniently within the space. For example, Jeep and off-road vehicle owners usually have little room in their cabs and tend to use smaller radios; RV and large-truck owners with ample room have a much wider spectrum of radios to choose from.


Despite the large number of CBs available, selecting an appropriate radio is fairly straightforward as long as you consider which features will best suit your needs. As a radio's transmission performance is primarily a result of the external antenna, which is purchased separately, that shouldn't be a factor when deciding among various models. In a future article, I'll cover CB antennas at length and discuss how to pick and mount antennas on a wide range of vehicles.

Andrew Youderian

More from Andrew Youderian about CB Radios
How to Choose a CB Radio
How to Choose and Mount a CB Radio Antenna
How to Tune a CB Radio Antenna
More Infor About CB Radios

Andrew YouderianAndrew Youderian is the founder and manager of Right Channel CB Radios, an online store specializing in CB equipment for vehicles. Right Channel CB Radios carries a large selection of CB radios and antennas, and hosts a CB Radio Resources Library, containing numerous CB-related articles and guides. Youderian lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has traveled extensively throughout the American West. His most recent excursion was a 10,000-mile, five-week road trip across the United States.


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