Cobra is back with a new budget priced, fully featured radio. How can it stand up to the competition? This Review is sponsored by Teluwatt 2 Way Radio Services.
When Liam from Teluwatt contacted me about reviewing the Cobra MT-220 I was delighted to say the least as I am always interested in getting the opportunity to try out new PMR-446 equipment. A few days later the package arrived by Business Post and by lunchtime that day I had two Cobra Microtalk MT-220’s sat on my desk ready for testing. These particular radios were supplied in the “value pack” packaging which basically includes a pair of radios along with belt clips/desk stand and 8 Duracell AAA batteries, enough to run the radios and get you started.
The Cobra MT-220 is a compact PMR-446 two-way radio geared firmly towards the leisure end of the market. The radios are finished in an attractive metallic grey and silver colour and the main function keys are rubberised in silver. Cobra are not a newcomer to the PMR radio scene having made a solid start with their Microtalk 250 range about 3 years ago. Whilst this radio was not the most sensitive we have ever tested it set a few benchmarks for the standard of that time. So has the MT-220 built on the foundations of it’s predecessors? Read on and find out how it measure up.
Firstly let’s take a look at the basic coverage of the set. The MT-220 has the full eight PMR 446 channels that are legal in most of Europe and the 38 standard CTCSS sub codes. The output power is also the legal maximum of 500mW and has a fixed rubberised antenna.
In the hand the Cobra MT-220 has a pleasing feel thanks to its rounded shape. It seems to fit the hand quite nicely and allows for a good grip which is quite important as you wouldn’t want to drop the radio even though it seems reasonably well made! In total there are 10 buttons on the MT-220 which control every single function including the volume. Let’s first look at the front of the radio. In the top centre position you can find the power button. As with most other mobile radios and telephones the power is switched on and offer by holding down the power button for 3 seconds. This ensures that the radio is not inadvertently switched on or off whilst in a pocket. Below the large LCD display are four more buttons. One simply switches on the backlight (that is provided by one single green LED) and the other locks the keypad to ensure that settings are not changed whilst on the move once programmed. The lock is enabled by the same procedure as the power button (2 second press). A padlock appears on the LCD display and begins to flash to show the locked status. Whilst locked the only features that can be accessed are the volume controls and the PTT bar.
Below the light and lock buttons are two keys labelled + and -. These are to control the volume level. Unlike some PMR radios this model uses a digital volume control and opinion is always divided with these solutions because some people prefer the flexibility of a rotary control where as the Cobra has keys to set the volume level on a scale of 1 to 8. This proved more than adequate on level 5 for general use in with a reasonable level of background noise. I am pleased to report that the radio did not seem to suffer any distortion even on full volume during our tests. Moving on to the left hand side of the radio there are just two controls. One large oval shaped PTT bar and a much smaller circular call tone button. A simple press of the call tone button will probably drive you mad as the MT-220 has only one call tone. That’s right; it’s just a simple ringing tone like an old mobile phone (a la Motorola mobiles!). This might seem all well and good but the main disadvantage is that if you are working in a large group of users with the same type of radio you really can’t identify who is calling you because everyone will have the same tone! All you can do is hope that the other people in your group are using different types of radios. That of course, depends if you choose to use call tones. There is always a healthy discussion about the use of call tones (or should that be over-use). Why not just press the button and talk?
On the other side of the radio there is a channel change key marked with up and down arrows and this lets you cycle through the channels either way around. These are dead easy to use and there is not a lot more you can say about these! Underneath this is a small circular button labelled “mode”. This allows the subcode to be set. A press of this causes the two smaller numbers on the LCD display to flash on and off indicating the setting of the CTCSS subcode. This can easily be set by pressing the up and down channel keys directly above. The cobra allows the use of code 00 meaning that CTCSS can be disabled if required. This is useful for listening around to see if anyone else is using channels in your area or communicating with cheaper PMR radios that do not offer the CTCSS code option.
The LCD Display on the Cobra is very clear. It’s quite large considering the size of the set and displays the channel in large digits and the CTCSS in smaller digits. Next to this is a picture of a transmitter mast. This serves two functions. One indicates when the radio is transmitting and the other when it is receiving. You may think this is obvious but it can be an indication of when someone else is using the channel on a different sub-code that you cannot hear – you’ll then know not to talk until they have finished. The MT-220 shows activity on the display even when your sub-code is silent. This is a useful feature.
The most apparent omission from the Cobra is the scan feature. I always feel that I am missing out on something without this function. I guess that ever since I reviewed the Motorola T6222 it set standards but that is a different class of radio! An interesting observation is the fact that if you hold down the main channel change buttons the radio cycles through the 8 channels almost like a scan facility. It can actually be used as a makeshift scan as the receiver actually does tune to the channel before you let go of the button and is sufficient to see if there is other activity around on the band. The only other item which I haven’t been able to find on the radio is a “monitor” facility. This allows the user to release the factory pre-set squelch level from the radio so you can hear the static noise and pick up very weak transmissions. After a while I discovered that this can be achieved by holding down the lighting button for a few seconds as with some other models.
The instruction manual for the MT-220 is of the multi-language variety meaning that it is a little thin on the ground but contains plenty of small illustrations. With a radio of this type with only a few features it really is not a problem as you will seldom need to refer to the manual as it is so easy to use. The manual does mention about connecting accessories to the radio. These include Headsets and Speaker Microphones so the set can be used hands-free which is ideal for those riding a bike or doing sporting activities.
So how does the radio perform in a real environment? To accomplish this test we used the twin pack of MT-220’s so we had two identical radios as a reference point. I also took a T6222 along so I could switch between two different brands as a comparison. Having set the channel and sub-codes accordingly (disabled for the initial test), I left the other radio at home with my usual test person (Julie) and set off for a walk into town. The audio quality from the Cobra was crisp and clear even when holding the radio at arms length. Unlike some PMR radios the cobra didn’t seem to employ much in the way of audio compression and the sound was fully rounded. This is a very good start and should mean the Cobra is compatible with a range of two way radio products.
On my journey into town I happened to hear another user on the same channel as we were using. They sounded quiet distant and from what I could gain they were business people. I began to notice that the Cobra is quiet a sensitive little radio compared with some other models, often picking up signals when others would remain silent. As a test with the distant sounding station I turned on the T6222 (which is known for being very sensitive). The station I had heard on the Cobra was also coming through at about the same signal level but slightly clearer. The Cobra was equally sensitive but tended to sound ôhissyö when compared to the Motorola. This isnÆt really a bad point and it was still perfectly acceptable.
I managed to achieve a distance of about 1.25 miles in a built up area which is nearly all the way to town from my home location which is perfectly respectable as it is quite a difficult route with all the buildings around and my house is not located on any high ground. The next test was to try them on a longer distance location with a friend who lives on high ground. Dave lives about 2 miles from my house but he is on a reasonably high location and can see most of the town from his bedroom window (not to mention the sea as we live by the coast). Normally using my Motorola I can contact Dave from my house whilst we are both indoors using PMR446. The quality of signal can be variable at times but 9 times out of 10 this works fine. Would the Cobra be able to meet the challenge? Dave uses a BT Freeway radio and these are very similar to the Cobra in a lot of ways so it should be a fair test. I rang him to arrange a test time and we started to call on the radio. Sure enough he got back to me straight away and I managed have a short conversation using the Cobra. He reported that the audio quality was very clear and the signal was good with very little static noise. I tend to use this test location as a benchmark when testing radios because some of the models I have tried in the past have not been able to make this contact.
The tests I conducted were during the February half term for the local schools. Whenever there is a holiday there is usually more activity on the bands in my area as it would appear that many school children have bought cheap radios such as the Telecoms from Dixons or Currys. Out of curiosity I thought I would have a flick through the channels. After a few minutes I found a group of kids pretending to be Police officers and using Police style lingo which was quite amusing. I then ventured further up onto the band at channel 3 where I found some more people having what sounded like a belching competition! Who says the uses of PMR 446 aren’t diverse?
So far we haven’t really touched on the subject of batteries. The radios each use 4 AAA batteries. The battery cover has two charger points on the back panel. You can purchase the optional rechargeable batteries and charger but for the review I just used the Alkaline Duracell’s which will last approximately 40 hours. I haven’t been able to flatten them even whilst I used them a lot and even now the battery level gauge is still showing 3 out of 4 segments. All I can assume is that the battery life is pretty much excellent but I don’t suppose rechargeables will last quite as long as Alkaline. I’m not really a big fan of AAA batteries in two way radios. I appreciate why manufacturers use them in order to keep down the size and weight of the radio but when you think how much power a two way radio can draw it’s not the best choice.
On a couple of occasions I did use the radios at night time and needed to use the backlight, this works quite well even though it only has one green LED to provide the lighting. Cobra doesn’t seem to go in for fancy lighting solutions but they are adequate.
Finally, the belt clips that are provided with the MT-220 double up as a desktop stand. On their own the Cobra’s will not stand upright due to the very rounded shape. Because of this Cobra thoughtfully supply a plastic belt-clip that encases half of the radio and gives it feet to sit on the desk with. This is a nice touch and certainly a bonus when you want to leave the radio monitoring a channel on your desk but don’t want to lay the set down which could cause bad reception.
The Cobra offers quite a pleasing performance for the price and to be honest I was surprised at the distance achievable with a low price package. The radio will be most at home in a leisure environment but equally usable in a small business where heavy use won’t be an issue. The price of the package is £59.99 and you can purchase these from the excellent Teluwatt outlet. In my opinion these radios are everything that the occasional user could ask for. It will be hard to find anything better for the low price and the other thing is that they look great!
Great Price.. Great Performance!
My thanks go out to Liam at Teluwatt for the loan of these radios. If you are in the market for any two-way radio equipment please give him a call and mention Transmission1 to ensure the best possible price and service. I’m sure he’d be flattered to know that you are purchasing a radio based on the strength of our reviews.