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, and thus my normal advice is to consider VHF radios (and AIS transponders) from specialist manufacturers who may offer fuller-featured, better-performing equipment. Testing the new Raymarine Ray90 makes me reconsider that recommendation. The 90 is a compelling VHF regardless of your brand of MFD, plus I discovered an interesting Bluetooth feature.
The $950 list price Ray90 and its $1,050 Ray91 sibling are identical except for the addition of an AIS receiver to the Ray91. Both are black box DSC VHF radios, meaning the only portion visible at the helm are the handsets and optional speakers. The base unit supports two wired handsets (via the HS1 and HS2 ports pictured above), and up to three wireless handsets that connect via 2.4ghz WiFi to a separate wired Hub (which thus can be installed in an optimal wireless location). The Ray90/91 also include hailer functionality with listen-back as well as integrated GPS, which means that the VHF DSC distress call feature is fully functional ever if the included NMEA 2000 or NMEA 0183 communications are not in use.
The black box architecture allows the Ray90 to serve two helms, and roaming crew, though 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. Have Another Day previously had a fixed mount VHF with a second station mic at the lower helm, and with power only controlled for the whole radio, it was all stations on or all off.
Raymarine has taken a different approach to external speakers for the Ray90 and Ray91. When using a wired handset a passive speaker is used. This speaker connects to the handset cable via an RCA style connection. The wireless handsets use an active, meaning it has its own amplifier, wireless speaker that connects to the wireless handset via Bluetooth. A little more about that later.
Installation and setup
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.
Navigating the Handset
I found the menus easy to navigate, the setting options easy to understand and the handsets quite responsive. The Ray90 handsets 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.
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 the above message popped up on my Axioms (though the Buddy name I’d assigned to that MMSI on the Ray90 wasn’t displayed on the Axiom). 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 (and find Ben E’s words from 2006 about complexity still very applicable) but NMEA-2000 connectivity does make the connections more straightforward and allow tracking other radios like on buddy boats and dinghies.
The Wireless Handset
The wireless handset set the Ray90 apart from other radios I’ve used and tested. The Ray90/91 modular radios joins the Standard Horizon GX6000 the Ben E is testing as the only marine VHFs I’m aware of to 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 (pictured in the gallery above) 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 their 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 far preferable to Raymarine’s use of buttons to adjust these settings.
Bluetooth Audio… FINALLY!
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 the diagram above, 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. So 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 VHF hands free.
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 — and 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.
If there are more than two handsets powered on you will choose from the intercom list shown above left. If there are only two handsets powered on, simply selecting the intercom option immediately calls the other handset, and if there’s only one handset active the intercom menu item isn’t even displayed. The intercom calls also use an ascending volume for the alert tone ending at a volume that’s hard to miss, and the calls are clear and easy to hear.
Wrapping it up
As noted at the beginning, for a radio I expected 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 so I had to set the backlight each time I powered on the radio.
There’s a lot of flexibility in configuring these radios. The $950 Ray90 or $1050 AIS-receiver-equipped Ray91 base unit each includes one wired handset along with a passive speaker, mounting hardware, and a NMEA 2000 to SeaTalk NG adapter cable. A $500 wired second station pack includes mic, speaker and 10m 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; and these components can all also be purchased individually.