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by Josh Kirschner on October 08, 2014
in Car Tech & Safety, Travel & Entertainment, Guides & Reviews
Does spending more money for a radar detector really get you better protection and fewer false alarms? I decided to find out by taking two of our top-rated radar detectors—the Escort Passport Max (street price $505 on Amazon) and the Whistler CR85 (street price $143 on Amazon)—on multiple road trips across eight states to test them in real world conditions. After nine months of testing, here’s what I learned.
First, a little background.
The Escort Passport Max was our runner-up as the Top Pick for Best Radar Detector in our review last October. The Escort Max offers a variety of features beyond radar detection, including GPS-based red light and speed camera warnings, auto-learning of fixed position false alarms and all new "High Definition" DSP circuitry to help justify its hefty price tag. The newer Escort Passport Max 2 is identical to our tested model, except that it now includes Bluetooth to connect your with the Escort Live app on your phone.
The Whistler CR85 was our Top Pick for Best Budget Radar Detector. It is a bare-bones model that doesn’t pack the red light and speed camera database features of the Passport Max (though its sibling the Whistler CR90 does). Since I was only testing radar detection and false alarm rejection, the lack of GPS and camera locations weren’t an issue.
There are a few sites out there that do extensive testing of radar detectors, but those tests are always in simulated conditions with a limited number of radar scenarios. I wanted real world results; and that’s not easy to get. As Murphy’s Law would dictate, cops are far harder to find when you’re conducting a test of radar detectors. So I drove for over nine months, across eight states (Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania), with both detectors mounted on either side of my dashboard, until I had results I could feel confident in.
In my driving, I only encountered law enforcement officers (###) using Ka band radar. Because Ka band is usually detected at shorter range than K or X band radar, and because of its predominance among LEOs, it’s critical that a radar detector pick up Ka band radar at the furthest distance possible.
With few exceptions, both the Passport Max and the Whistler CR85 detected Ka radar with enough warning to slow down before being at risk for a ticket. The Passport Max was usually a hair quicker to go off, though this wouldn’t matter in most scenarios.
But that extra sensitivity paid off in the mountain highways of Pennsylvania. Coming down a long hill, the Passport started beeping with no cop in sight. As I started to round a turn at the bottom, the Whistler started squawking, too, and there, tucked inside the curve, was the ###. The Passport warned me in time, I don’t know if I would have been as lucky with the Whistler.
On K Band, commonly used for photo radar, detection distances were identical between the Max and the CR85. Both provided adequate warning. I never encountered a ### using X band radar, and it’s unlikely you will either as this band has largely fallen out of use for vehicle speed detection.
I did not try to test laser detection as it’s pointless. Because laser guns have such a narrow beam, the only time you’re going to get a laser warning is when you’re already nailed.
Limiting false alarms is almost as important as detecting "real" signals. Too many false alarms may cause you to ignore the next valid alert or decide to stop using the radar detector, altogether.
Both detectors were pretty good at avoiding false alerts. The Passport Max, though, was definitely the quieter of the two. The Whistler seemed to have a particular problem with the collisions avoidance systems on Audis. In the city, I would recommend turning off X band on the Max and CR85 to avoid picking up the numerous automatic door openers.
One quirk of having red light camera warnings is that it can lead to false alarms, as well. While driving on urban highways, the Passport (and, presumably, the sibling Whistler CR90, too) would alert to nearby red light cameras, though they obviously were not a concern on the highway. Easy to ignore, but irritating.
After considerable time spent with both detectors, the Passport Max is the one that I would choose if I wanted the absolute best in radar detection, with the least false alarms. Across every scenario I tested it, it never let me down. But that performance comes at a steep price. If you can justify the cost for the red light and speed camera database, have deep pockets, or regularly drive at highly irresponsible speeds, the Passport Max (or the Passport Max 2) is the detector for you.
One consideration with the Passport Max that doesn’t relate directly to radar performance is its sub-par windshield mount. The weight of the detector causes it to jiggle on the mount while driving, eventually working itself off the mount entirely. By the end of my testing, the constant jiggling actually caused the entire case of the detector to split in two. This is a commonly reported issue among owners. A new mount supposedly fixes this problem but we were not able to get one prior to writing this review.
For those on a budget, the Whistler CR85 is no slouch. In real-world testing, it performed just as well as the Passport Max in K band detection and was nearly as strong in Ka band. Its higher propensity towards false alarms was noticeable, but still well-managed. If you’re looking for great protection at a bargain price, the CR85 is he way to go.
From Radar Roy on October 08, 2014 :: 1:20 pm
Great review Josh, you may want to however mention that Escort has also now come out with the Passport Max2 that has built in Bluetooth for Escort Live
From Josh Kirschner on October 08, 2014 :: 8:59 pm
Hi, Roy. Thank you very much for your comments. I’ve always found your reviews immensely helpful.
I did mention the Passport Max 2 Bluetooth connection for Escort Live above, but didn’t get into detail. My focus for this article was specifically about the radar detection abilities.
Evaluating Escort Live vs Waze vs Trapster is an article I would love for us to undertake, but the process of doing so would be quite daunting.
From Tim Coomer on October 09, 2014 :: 10:22 am
Thanks for the review.
One very important benefit of GPS technology in both the Max and Max2 is the ability to learn and reject false alarms. Both products use location and frequency to identify and ultimately reject those known false alerts – the most common is automatic door openers.
Both products give you the ability to lock these out, or if you are not sure, simply drive your normal routes and it will learn and automatically reject these areas over time – typically a week or two will do.
Thanks again for the review.
From Josh Kirschner on October 09, 2014 :: 10:36 am
I did mention that briefly in the article and can attest to it working for me (e.g., at the entrance to the NJ Turnpike toll booths, which is always using K band radar).
From Dmitry on June 17, 2015 :: 8:19 am
I have a whistler cr85, and I love it!
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