What Is The World's Best Radar Detector?

A comprehensive look into the present (and future) of avoiding a ticket.

Alex Roy / The Drive

It is indisputable that radar detectors matter more than ever, but what is the world’s best radar detector? Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. The arsenal of law enforcement has vastly changed since the first civilian radar detectors hit the market 40 years ago. A radar detector is useless against laser guns. Laser detection is pointless without laser jammers. What about unmarked police cars pacing traffic? Or air patrols?

Your basic stand-alone radar detector is the proverbial knife in a gunfight.

The real question is: What is the best solution for avoiding speeding tickets, right or wrong?

The answer isn’t as easy as buying a single box at any price. A radar detector is merely one tool in your arsenal, not some magic potion that will protect you 100% of the time. All those detector reviewers comparing sensitivity, ergonomics, packaging and price? Dilettantes discussing gilded bricks. It’s true. Most radar detectors—even those that look good on paper—are a primitive vestige of the pre-smartphone era: sealed boxes with hard-coded software. They are unable to keep up with or address the myriad evolving threats to their users.

The detection sector is 10+ years behind even basic connected consumer electronics, so identifying the best possible solution requires working backwards from the perfect system, which must include the following features:

Directional Display

A detector’s sole purpose is to save time and money. Any information that helps you maintain your speed is good. Any information (or lack thereof) that slows you down unnecessarily is bad. Therefore, any detector without a clear display indicating the direction of an incoming threat cannot fulfill its purpose, and is worthless.

Why? Suppose the world’s best detector sans display lights up indicating a potential threat. Is it ahead of you or behind? Three miles away or one? Impossible to know. You must slow down. You’ve now lost time. If the threat is ahead, how do you know when you’ve passed it? Until you locate the threat, you don’t. More time lost. If you had known the threat was to the rear, you might have maintained speed, or even accelerated.

No directional display? You bought a brick. Sell it, slow down, and use Waze.

Front & Rear Sensors

You wouldn’t drive without a rear-view mirror, so why would you use a detector without sensors in both directions? A directional display won’t work without them, ergo, these are mandatory. For those people who only mount sensors in the front: Good luck.

Laser Jammers

Laser detection is absolutely useless without jamming functionality. Unlike radar, once you’re hit by laser, you’re caught. Is laser jamming essential? Here’s a chart of where police use lasers in the United States. If you can install these legally, do it. Illegally? That's your business—and don’t ask me in the comments where to get it done.

Sensitivity & ADAS Filtration

The very best radar detectors will all detect radar threats of virtually any type well outside police radar guns’ effective range, in virtually all conditions. Sensitivity isn’t the problem, nor are the traditional X-Band false alarms so common in urban areas.

No, the biggest problem is the rise of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) like radar cruise control and blind-spot monitoring. These use frequencies overlapping with police radar operating in what’s called K-Band. Different ADAS suites use slightly different frequencies within K-Band, and the brute force method of filtering all of them out may lead to silencing the very threats one needs to hear.

Which brings us to...

Software Upgradeability

Your desktop or smartphone is only as safe as the latest security update. Why would you expect your anti-radar/laser solution to be any different? The rise of ADAS means that radar (and soon Lidar) will become pervasive. All that Lidar you hear about in the context of self-driving cars? Lidar = Laser = more potential false alarms.

The only solution is one that is upgradeable. As police and civilian radar and Lidar evolve, so must filtration algorithms. This means software upgrades that can behaviorally distinguish between police and civilian ADAS operating in the same frequencies and wavelengths.

Upgradeability requires more than mailing in your unit every few years for an update. False alarms are evolving faster than threats, and crippling the effectiveness of even the best countermeasures. Every time a car is updated or released with new ADAS hardware—and possibly even when a manufacturer updates their ADAS software over the air or at a dealer—filtration algorithms will need to be updated as well. This requires...

Real Connectivity

Sealed-box detectors in 2017? Be serious. USB inputs? What a kludge. A cutting edge solution should have 4G/LTE built-in, if not wifi. Smartphones and iPads in the same range price do. Besides, how else are you going to conveniently update your absolutely essential database of fixed threats. Please read on:

Fixed Threat Database

Countless GPS devices and phone apps come preloaded with red-light and speed camera locations. These change. If these change before your database has been updated, you’re screwed.

GPS-enabled

Everyone knows exactly where on their daily commute their detector goes off for no reason.  Mute switches are so 1997. I want a GPS markup/tagging function that integrates with the fixed threat database, allowing me to identify fixed false alarms by location. The only argument against this is that muting by location may mask a real threat, a problem solved by combining GPS, filtration updates and—

Crowdsourcing

There is no substitute. The world’s greatest detection/jamming suite can only benefit from maximizing data across a network, and correlating it to local information. Whereas Waze relies on active input by users who spot police and enter it via its cutesy UI, imagine a platform that actively shared real radar and laser signals across the network, cross-checked both against a list of popular speed traps and patrol zones, and created a historical database ranking risk by location, time, day and date. The foundation of such a platform existed in the now defunct Trapster. If only Trapster hadn’t been acquired and abandoned by Nokia.

If only.

Be Built-in, Concealed & Shielded

Built-in, so you never have to worry about mounting hardware and turning it on. Concealed, because cops assume people with detectors are up to no good, and in some states detectors/jammers are illegal. Electromagnetically shielded, because where they’re illegal police often use radar detector detectors.

That’s quite a list. Now let’s take a look at the best you can buy today.

The Current State The Art 

The good news? There are several options that deliver a mostly perfect solution. The bad news? None of them come cheap. The best solution depends on you, how much you want to suffer, and how much you want to spend on the best solution available today.

There are only two factors that matter: 1. Do you believe in the power of crowdsourced data and ecosystem? 2. Do police use lasers where you drive.

if you believe in ecosystem, there is only one choice at this time.

As for laser, the effectiveness of any built-in solution depends on what kind of laser guns police use where you drive, and whether your system can jam them. If you can afford these solutions, you (or someone you're paying) need to do some homework.

Our Choice: Consumer Near-Perfection

Escort’s Max 360 CI is an excellent built-in system, with one caveat. It costs $3,499.00 plus installation, and that’s not even the caveat. It’s the most comprehensive and easiest to use of the built-in solutions, and far closer to functional perfection than any of the alternatives.

Escort's only real shortcoming conceals its unique advantage: ecosystem. Although it doesn't integrate with Waze, you can connect the system to your phone via Bluetooth to integrate with the Escort Live app, which is vastly superior to Waze for police location in every way but one: size of user base.

In the connected future, ecosystem is everything.

Escort won’t reveal figures for their user base other than to say it's "in the millions", but it can’t be anywhere near the 50 million that Waze claimed as of 2013. Of course it’s almost impossible to estimate how many Waze users are in the US, how many actively enter data, and how much of that data is accurate enough to become information a driver can act upon.

But quantity does not equal quality.

Escort Live users may be far fewer, but pony up $50 a year for the full subscription, tether it to your system, place your smartphone on a good mount, and witness the future of situational awareness: radar and laser alerts from other users in-network appear on-screen, overlaid with their fixed threat “Defender” database updated weekly.

When you see a radar or laser threat in Escort Live, it's there because another user with Escort hardware detected it. If it's undefined, it's there because another Escort owner entered it manually—which, in my book, gives it real credence.

When you see a cop in Waze, you're hoping one or more users reported it accurately. Talk about porous. Even if they do, you don't know if it's radar or laser. Not all that helpful.

I loved Escort Live. Unless Waze starts working with one or more competing manufacturers to integrate radar/laser threat data into their app, the Escort ecosystem is the only game in town.

Has the Escort Live community reached sufficient critical mass to replace using Waze alongside the Valentine Research V1 ($449) I’ve been using for 25 years? I’m not sure about that critical mass in Nebraska, but it was sufficient on two drives cross country, and the Max 360 standalone unit ($649) I’ve been using for the last ten months is vastly superior in filtration to a V1 with the latest update.

Let me repeat that. The Escort killed the V1 in terms of false alarms. Sad, but true.

Escort's fixed threat database is accessed via Escort Live, which means it's updated via your smartphone's cellular connection. Their sensor hardware's firmware still needs to be updated via USB, but at least they're moving in the right direction. Hope you own a laptop.

As for ADAS filtration, Escort claims they are building a database of ADAS hardware by make/model, and distributing updates as quickly as they can.

Escort has a lot of work to do, but that’s a function of their ambition—they are light years ahead of everyone else in terms of ecosystem. No one else in-sector appears to be looking past hardware and basic phone apps/external displays. Until they do, every day that passes is one in Escort’s favor.

The Professionals’ Alternatives?

Two companies at the cutting edge of laser jamming now offer full halo suites designed for the serious — and I mean serious — user,  both claiming radar sensitivity and laser jamming superior to Escort’s: AL Priority ($2659 + install) and Stinger ($7290 + install). Both offer updates via USB, but neither offer an app-based community/ecosystem like Escort Live. 

This is where things get tricky.

For years, AL Priority laser jammers have been the product of choice for hardcore enthusiasts (and many of my friends) cobbling together a suite around the vaunted V1. Their new full suite would appear to be an incredible value for this level of performance, but the amateur user is not going to get the most out of this hardware. Effective customization is a time investment the average person is just not ready to make. Their phone app is impressive, but even if Waze alerts pop up on top of it, running two apps simultaneously on your phone does not a real ecosystem make.

How does Stinger justify its incredible price premium over everyone else? Hardware quality and size. If you know what a phased array antenna is, you're either already a Stinger customer, or you've played Harpoon and know something about Aegis missile defense cruisers. Also, Stinger's sensor heads are seriously small, which helps in states where such hardware is illegal. Stinger also offers a gorgeous little proprietary display instead of a phone app, because they think that if you're going to use Waze, you don't need another app on your phone.

I agree.

A Stinger installation will still cost you somewhere north of $8500, which is crazy even by my standards. Amortizing its expense over X moving violations and Y time is the devil's math. I admire their hardware as much as the next guy, but I can't rationalize this pricing other than as a very juicy piece of techporn.

How about that ADAS filtration? It's only as good as the update quality and frequency, and neither company has Escort's resources. How much does this matter? Seems to me that the more data gathered, the better. If you've heard of network effect, you know Escort's got a leg up. 

A head-to-head-to-head test is necessary, but unless these companies start building ecosystems, the convenience/data/information chain is cut. If only someone would do an ADAS false alarm comparo, we might actually see who's ahead purely for performance. It would have to be repeated quarterly, at least, but does pure performance matter as much as crowdsourcing data from other detector owners?

I don't think so.

If you've got time on your hands and you’re satisfied with Waze, these options will take you down a rabbit hole of customization that may suit your taste. Were I attempting to break the Cannonball record again, I might be tempted by AL Priority, but I'm firmly in Escort's ecosystem camp.

Is K40’s Next Big Thing the Next Big Thing?

Back in the 80’s, K40 was the first company to offer a built-in system with front and rear sensors and a directional display. Their current halo suite, the RL360i + Dual Diffuser Optix laser jammers ($2499 + install), remains excellent by traditional standards. The laser jammers are software upgradeable via USB, but it lacks radar filtration upgradeability and integration with crowdsourced platforms. 

Back to Waze, again.

K40 has a major product announcement coming. K40 was the thing until the V1 came along. Maybe they'll surprise us with something nuts, like two-way data sharing with Waze.

Now that would be something.

What if you don’t want to spend $3500+?

There are two standalone alternatives, but you lose the laser jamming, and you better not leave them on your windshield or in a door pocket if you park your car in a major metro area.

Option 1: Get a good phone mount, install Waze or Escort Live (subscription version), and buy the standalone Escort Max 360 for $649. I used one to set three Cannonball records last year, including the Key West to Seattle run in 45 hours and 24 minutes. It’s the wise man’s choice, ready to roll and easy to use.

Option 2: For the hardcore tinkerer on a budget, you can still go out and buy the old standard, the V1, mail it in periodically for the latest update, and don’t forget the concealed display kit. You’re at around $500 already, plus all the accessories you need to cobble together the functionality you want by adding the Bluetooth module, and third party software like YaV1 or V1Driver, and a good phone mount, etc. Then it’s time to watch a video about how to program it, then watch another video, then program it, then download something else that sort of works with Waze, and hope you got the frequencies right, then make a video about how your custom-built suite is better than anything else at any price, then start all over again because of some negative comments on Reddit.

Option 3: All of this is insane. Drive the speed limit. Get a driver. Wait for self-driving cars.

Alex Roy, entrepreneur, President of Europe By Car, Editor-at-Large for The Drive, and author of The Driver, set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in a BMW M5 in 31 hours & 4 minutes, and has set multiple driving records in Europe & the USA in the EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.