This compact wideband handheld is put to the test. Well made is just one way we would describe it!
Launched last year, the Yaesu VR-500 has to be one of Yaesu’s smallest general coverage receivers yet. Just when you think that you have seen everything, along comes a small handheld packing the features of big radios into a tiny space.
The VR-500 provides continuous coverage between 100 KHz to 1300 MHz in all modes including AM, FM (Wide and Narrow), USB, LSB. Interestingly enough, my user manual indicates that the radio only has coverage of certain bands. Maybe this refers to a version of the VR-500 in another country where general coverage reception is not permitted? Anyway, ignoring the erroneous information in the manual, the actual dimensions of the receiver are as follows; 58 x 95 x 24 mm (W x H x D) so you can imagine that this small package can be taken almost anywhere.
Upon opening the box the first thing you notice about the VR-500 is the robust manufacturing quality in the case. This scanner has been designed to last, no cheap plastic parts, in fact it looks like the scanner would take some serious dropping – not that I tried! The feel of the casing is more like a professional PMR radio than the sort of materials we are used to for hobby radio and I welcome this move meaning that your investment should last a very long time. My purchase of the VR-500 was also decided by the pricing. My radio was obtained from Nevada communications that are currently offering the set for £199, which is a very good price for this set considering the coverage and features. Very few accessories are supplied as standard with the Yaesu. Out of the small cardboard box you will only find an Antenna, Belt Clip, Hand Strap, Manual and Warranty Card (you do fill them in, don’t you?!). However, there is enough to get you going but no batteries or charger. I really don’t think there is anything worse than getting a new radio and having to find some batteries before you can use it. For the minimal cost it would have been nice to have a set of batteries included to get you started. The really impressive thing about the VR-500 is the battery requirements, just 2 AA batteries – cheap and plentiful, especially in the rechargeable department. This is a welcome move and later I will discuss the battery life, which is most impressive. A number of additional accessories are available at extra cost such as an AC adapter and a rechargeable battery pack but these have eluded me in the UK and I have so far been unable to find them at any dealers – at least, those carrying them in stock!
The antenna supplied with the VR-500 is a standard BNC connection. Fortunately this means that you can substitute the bog standard rubber duck for a high performance antenna should you wish. Some smaller scanners use different antenna connections which are difficult to find (ie, Alinco) but there are no problems here.
The keypad on the VR-500 is well laid out and the marking is reasonably clear. With such a small set, the number of keys is reduced making the use of secondary functions mandatory. This however, is not a drawback as the designers have kept the functions logically grouped together, as I will explain in a minute.
Turning on the VR-500 is easy, just hold down the bright orange PWR key for two seconds and you will be greeted by a welcome message. By default this is “Yaesu VR-500” but it can be changed to anything you wish. This idea has obviously been developed from mobile phones! on top of the scanner are just two knobs, one for volume and the other for altering the VFO marked “Dial”. A concentric ring on this control is provided for setting the Squelch level too.
Moving on to the main keypad functions, the secondary functions are provided by pressing the function key, located on the side of the scanner like a PTT button and then pressing the appropriate key. one example is the mode selection – keeping the function key held down and pressing the Mode button (key 0) allows you to cycle through the different reception modes.
Entering a frequency into the VR-500 manual is very straightforward. Thanks to the standard numerical keypad you can simply enter the manual mode and type in the frequency you wish to receive with the decimal place and then press enter. Changing the channel steps is an easy procedure too thanks to the use of the dial key which comes into play on many of the functions. Rotating this knob can change channel steps and other important functions making the entry of any frequencies a little easier.
Thanks for the Memories
Writing a frequency into memory is also an easy procedure. The VR-500 has 1000 memories available, this seems to be a standard these days and will be more than enough for most people. I always struggle to fill more than 300-400 in my area due to the lack of activity but the spare capacity can be used as a temporary storage area whilst you are sorting though new frequencies. Memory space is divided into logical blocks of 100 channels so you can organise frequencies by groups, such as airband, marine traffic and PMR radio. Many memory management features are provided with this receiver including the ability to copy, move and delete frequencies and only scan certain blocks at a time. It would appear that the designers haven’t missed anything in this respect. The only thing I would say about the memory banks is the fact that you cannot change the size of each bank or create more than 10 banks. They are fixed at 100 channels per bank in 10 banks. Not really a problem but still worth considering if you are dedicated!
Another great feature of the VR-500 is the ability to add alpha-tags to each memory location. Basically this gives the user the ability to add a short name to aid identification – this is great when you cannot remember what you saved 6 months later! The entry of text is done via the rotation of the “Dial” knob on the top of the scanner. It’s not the fastest way of entering text but is adequate. Personally I would have preferred the “mobile text messaging” way of entering characters (as on a mobile phone where each key has letters above it) but this would have meant adding a 3rd layer of characters above each key and that might have appeared daunting to some users and spoiled the look of the radio.
Searching between two frequencies is an easy task. In the same way that the memory system works, the search limits can be programmed and saved. The VR-500 lets the user define 10 presets. Straight from the factory, the VR-500 is programmed with 10 common frequency ranges although I found I had to re-program these immediately to make good use of the scanner. High and Low frequency limits, step and mode can all be saved simultaneously and then subsequent searching can be recalled very easily. For example, if I set the marine band up between 156.000 and 158.000 FM, 12.5 KHz Steps, this can be recalled in just one press of a numeric key once in search mode. I could assign a marine search to key 1 and an air band search to key 2. Whilst the scanner is searching you can change the search band at any time without exiting the mode.
Initially I found the programming of the search limits confusing and ended up reading the book about 5 times before I got it right. I can assure you that the instructions are correct but you really do need to follow them literally. I think that overall the instruction manual could do with some better examples at points. Like most people, I don’t read the instruction manual end to end but use it as a reference guide when I need to know how to do something.
Many other functions are available through a configuration mode accessed by holding the function key and pressing the “Ent” button down. This leads to nearly 30 options where you can change everything from the Beep sound to the backlighting. At this point I must mention the backlight, Yaesu have gone for an orange colour for both the LCD and keypad. The display illumination is more than adequate in low light and the keypad is also pleasant to operate in the dark. You can configure various options for lighting if you want to conserve battery power but I have left the default of 10 seconds per key-press alone. Even the option to switch the keypad illumination off has been provided should you wish to!
Going back to the config menu, tools to set display contrast, lock mode, language, timers to switch off and on(!), battery save, search mode, find a named memory channel, copy banks, swap banks and even report how many channels are free are provided. There are many other items but I won’t list them all as they are well documented towards the back of the manual.
Another interesting feature of the scanner is the Smart Search facilities. Basically this allows automatic monitoring of a range of frequencies and as new channels are found they are put into memory. This can be useful for finding new active channels whilst you are away from the scanner.
The Dual Watch facility allows monitoring of two channels at once. This is particularly useful for monitoring split frequency simplex operation such as PMR communications where the base and mobile transmitt and receive on different frequencies.
In The Real World
I set the Yaesu VR-500 up with my usual selection of channels in various bands and set off for the local high point. This gives great reception and a variety of sources to try the capabilities of this receiver out to the maximum. First up, I monitored some emergency services traffic in the Narrow Band FM mode. I can report that audio quality was crisp and clear despite coming from a very miniature speaker. The tone and clarity was there and no distortion was present even when turned up.
Monitoring the AM airband, the AM quality was very good, again sounding very crisp and I found I could hear two way air traffic including the control tower from a distance of at least 50 miles away. Leaving the squelch set to open on one channel was pleasant because there was virtually no hiss or crackle even with the volume turned high. The only point I would make is that weak AM signals on the VR-500 sounded very distant. This might sound like a really stupid observation but comparing my Yupiteru MVT-9000 Mk II with this receiver proved that the sensitivity was not as good as the Yupiteru on AM, but equal on FM. The Yupiteru was able to hang onto weak signals better than the VR-500 but it has to be noted that the MVT-9000 is a much bigger scanner and certainly cannot fit into average sized pockets!
I tried the VR-500 on the broadcast bands, both television and radio and I found many high quality audio signals in Wideband FM including some outside broadcast facilities from what appeared to be Sky Sports across the water in Lincolnshire. I could hear the programme controllers talking to each other also. Scan speeds seemed very fast and more than adequate for blasting through the VHF and UHF popular segments.
Trying the VR-500 in the car I have made one observation on the audio side of the radio. It is pitifully quiet, with the scanner being of minute dimensions that audio output just isn’t enough to be heard properly in most vehicles whilst travelling with the noise of the road. You definitely need to invest in an external speaker system or small amplifier for use whilst mobile. This is maybe an unfair criticism for such a small scanner but I can’t help comparing it to the MVT-9000 with a very loud and generous audio rating. Look at the specifications in the book, the VR-500 provides only 90mW on battery power so this is understandable! You need at least 1.5 W output for in a car. A pair of amplified speakers would do the trick – the sort used for computer systems with a battery compartment in them.
Regarding the supplied antenna, I found this to be a little disappointing to say the least. It only seemed to be good for the UHF bands and anything below about 200 MHz was really poor. Changing it for a Nissei RH-9000 Super Gainer worked a treat. The scanner jumped to life and I started hearing the stations I was used to hearing on the MVT-9000. I have to say that this problem isn’t uncommon with a lot of standard antennas supplied with scanners, I think the same could be said of the Yupiteru, it would appear that manufacturers cut costs by supplying a cheap antenna that doesn’t do justice for the scanner itself. If they spent just a little more care on the quality of the antenna supplied they would sell many more radios – especially for potential customers who buy on the strength of a demonstration.
So far I haven’t really mentioned battery life but I can confirm that this is excellent even with extended use. I can get about 6-8 hours from a standard set of rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries (650 mAh) so on Nickel Metal Hydride you could expect even more life. The biggest advantage of this receiver is the fact that it takes just 2 AA batteries meaning that carrying a spare set around with you is a very big possibility so you are never caught out. This also adds to the very modest weight factor of just 220g with battery and antenna connected.
The only other thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the HF band performance and the USB and LSB modes. I don’t really use these on a regular basis from a handheld receiver due to the inefficient lengths of the rubber antennas being too much of a compromise but I can report that I tried the major ham bands and activity was heard on LSB with just the standard rubber duck. The LSB and USB tuning is very easy in small steps and should keep most people happy for occasional use although it is not a substitute for a proper HF rig. If you are thinking of connecting these radios to a large antenna system then think again – quite often the signal presented at the front end of the radio is too great and will cause overloading, in turn causing out of band signals to appear and mess up your reception. on the AM broadcast bands the sound was clear and crisp and would be fine for listening to the likes of the BBC World Service and other strong signals that can be received on the standard antenna.
The VR-500 is an excellent piece of scanning equipment and one of the smallest you will find anywhere. The features are impressive and easy to pick up and use. Build quality is superb and battery life, considering it runs on just 2 AA batteries is exemplary. Minor criticisms include low speaker output volume and the poor quality antenna supplied. The user manual could do to be a little more user friendly with better examples. The pricing of this radio at £199 in the UK is a good start and I am sure this will be one of Yaesu’s best sellers for some time. With a brand name like Yaesu you can’t go too far wrong. They have been making radios for years and it is obvious to see that they have tried to think of everything to make this compact receiver a winner. Highly recommended for the under £200 price bracket – it will be hard to beat!