Aside from the trucks themselves, there is probably nothing more strongly associated with long-haul, OTR trucking than the CB radio. These iconic devices are an essential part of the truck driver mythology, and a powerful symbol of the trucker community. Those of us who remember songs like “Convoy,” movies like “Smokey and the Bandit,” and shows like “The Dukes of Hazzard,” know how deeply ingrained the CB radio has been in American media and culture, and it’s still a powerfully evocative symbol of the Knights of the Road.
About CB radios
Citizen’s Band (CB) radio was developed in the 1940s in the United States, to permit private citizens to use radio frequencies to communicate with each other without requiring a license (unlike commercial and broadcast radio signals). By the 1950s, these 40 channels within the 27 MHz band were more accessible and affordable than UHF radios. CBs were an easy way for families, businesses, and, of course, truck drivers to stay in touch with each other over long distances. In the late 1960s, the price of CB radios had dropped enough to make them accessible to individuals and hobbyists. Amateurs formed clubs and adopted CB slang language, and a fad was born.
Truckers had already been using CB radios to communicate with each other about road hazards, and just to pass the time, but in the early 1970s, during the fuel crisis, truckers increasingly came to rely on CB radios to find out where to get fuel, and about the location of speed traps due to the newly lowered national speed limit. Truckers got political, organizing blockades and on-the-road protests using their CB radios. Songs and films were made in which CB slang and call signs featured prominently, and in 1975 the cost of a CB license was reduced from $20 to just $4. This created even more traffic on the limited number of CB channels, which were increased from 23 to 40 in 1977.
By the early 1980s, the existing channels were so crowded that communication became difficult. Many businesses moved to VHF channels, and many amateurs abandoned the hobby. The advent of mobile phones and other communication devices in the coming decades made CB radios less essential for communication on the road.
Today, most trucking companies have restricted mobile device usage while driving, leading to a resurgence in the use of CB radios. Many modern CB radios come with Bluetooth and other mobile-friendly features, and a CB radio is still essential equipment for safety and communication. There are still large parts of America with poor cell phone reception, and CB radios are a necessary tool not only for truckers, but increasingly also for RV campers and mobile home drivers. There are still some terminals that prefer CBs for communication.
While not the craze they once were, CB radios remain an important part of life for the long-haul trucker. Because of their importance for driver safety, your CB needs to have good signal strength, clear communications, and be dependable for years to come. Today we are taking a look at some of the most popular models of CB radio to determine which is the best.
The Best CB Radios on the Market
Cobra 29LTD 40-Channel CB Radio
Cobra has been making CB radios since 1963, and generations of truckers have relied on them. The 29LTD is a classic model, designed for professionals, with all the features and durability one expects from Cobra. The chrome face is attractive, with a long 9-foot microphone cord and an easy-to-read dimmable LED display for day or night readability.
- Antenna warning Indicator
- Delta tune
- RF gain
- Switchable NB/ANL
- Instant Channel 9
- 4-pin front microphone connector
- Tactile controls
- Adjustable dynamike boost
- 9-foot microphone cord
- PA capability
- Talk back
- SWR calibration
- 4 Watts AM RF power output
- LED display
- Dimmer control
- 2-year warranty
- At 4 watts RF, it gives the maximum legal amount of output power.
- SWR allows calibration of the antenna for maximum performance
- LED display is easy to read in low light conditions
- Instant access to Channel 9 is important in an emergency
- Front panel microphone connector makes installation simple
May not be very durable
PRESIDENT MCKINLEY USA SSB 12/24V CB RADIO
President Electronics is famous for inventing the automatic squelch control in 1996. The McKinley is compact with a black face and streamlined functions. This CB radio allows you to change the backlight color of the display for personalized visibility and operates on 12 or 24 volts. With AM/USB/LSB modes and side band and weather band features, this reliable CB radio has all the features you need.
- 40 channels AM/SSB
- 12 / 24 V
- Channel rotary switch
- Volume adjustment and on/off switch
- Manual squelch and automatic squelch control
- Multi-function LCD display
- ANL filter, NB, and HI-CUT
- Channel and memory scanning
- 3 memories
- F-function key
- Beep function
- Dual watch
- Preset 9/19 channel
- Weather channel with alert
- Front microphone plug
- External loudspeaker jack
- Front loudspeaker
- 2-year warranty
- The ability to range from 12 or 24 volts makes this a versatile and future-proof CB radio
- SSB capability helps this radio cover very long distances
- Built in one touch channel 9/19 and weather alerts are good for safety
AnyTone AT-5555N 10 Meter Radio
The AnyTone 10 meter radio is a versatile radio with a variety of capabilities. It is primarily a HAM radio but can easily convert into 11 meter 40 channel CB radio for trucks, with included SSB/FM/AM/PA mode. While converting it from HAM to CB will require soldering a switch, most CB shops will do it for you, and AnyTone will email instructions for conversion upon request.
- The default frequency is 28.000-29.700Mhz (10 meter radio). If you need it to be a CB radio, soldering will change the meter radio to 25.615-30.105Mhz (grounded by OP1). AnyTone will email you instructions on how to convert it
- It is 250mm W x280mm L x 60mm H
- It weights 1.5kg
- Large LCD display
- 5KHz CLARLFILER adjustment
- Flexible men function and PC program software
- ECHO function
- Squelch adjustable; threshold less than 1.0μV. automatic squelch control (only AM/FM) 1.0μV
- RF Gain Control 45dB adjustable for optimum signal reception and RF power adjustment
- automatic gain control (AGC) Less than 10dB change in audio output for inputs from 10 to 100,000 microvolt
- SCAN function
- Programmable RB function
- NB/ANL function
- DW DUAL-WATCH function
- Offset frequency function
- BEEP voice prompt
- +10KHZ function
- SIG, PWR, SWR function
- TOT function
- HI-CUT Function
- EMG channel function
- SWR protection
- Power Supply Voltage Protection
- Key-lock function
- 6 group memory channel
- 1-year warranty. Money back guarantee if returned within 30 days
Very versatile radio for a wide variety of applications and users
- Not actually a CB radio out of the box; will require converting
- By trying to be both, it is neither the very best HAM radio, nor the very best CB radio
Uniden BEARCAT CB Radio with Sideband and WeatherBand
The Uniden Bearcat has an eye-catching design and is loaded with useful features. The large display lets you check levels with a glance, and is customizable with 7 different backlight colors, making it easy to see and read in all kinds of light conditions, however you like. The included 6-pin to 4-pin microphone adaptor, along with compatibility with wireless microphones and speakers, make the Bearcat easy to upgrade and use anywhere.
- Single side band USB/LSB
- Easy to read adjustable 7 color display backlighting
- Dimmer switch with day/night functions
- Backlit keys and display for night viewing
- Laser etched keys
- Noise-cancelling microphone
- Wireless mic compatible
- 6-4 pin mic adapter
- Mic gain 4-position control
- Extra-long mic cord
- Ergonomic microphone grip for comfort
- Radio diagnostics
- Access to all 40 FCC-approved channels
- Instant emergency channel access
- Squelch control for signal clarity
- Memory scan
- Instant Channel 9/19 button
- RF gain control
- CB/PA switch
- Large digital S/RF/CAL/SWR meter
- The adjustable backlight makes it easy to see, in the color scheme best for you, with dimming capabilities for day and night driving
- Stylish microphone design looks good and is ergonomic
Questionable support from Uniden when there are issues with the radio
President Johnny III USA 40 Channel CB Radio 12 or 24V
Another entry from President Electronics, this one is the Johnny. The compact Johnny is easy to install in nearly any vehicle, but this small CB radio has all the essential features you need, along with President’s famous automatic squelch control.
- 40-channel AM
- Operates on 12 or 24 volts
- Channel rotary switch
- Weather alert
- Volume adjustment and ON/OFF
- Manual squelch and ASC (automatic squelch control)
- Multi-functions LCD display
- Vox function (Hands free)
- ANL filter and HI-CUT
- RF gain
- Priority channel memory
- F function key
- Beep function
- Roger beep
- Key locking
- Front microphone plug
- External loudspeaker jack
- With its compact size, the Johnny is can fit into almost any vehicle and is easy to install
- At 12 or 24 volts, it’s versatile and future-proof and reliable
No SWR meter
These are all good choices for your next CB radio, but there are a few more things to consider. When talking about CB radio features and performance, we would be remiss to not touch on a couple of other important considerations that affect how well your CB works, and how to make the most of your CB radio.
However good your CB radio is, your experience with a CB is only as good as your antenna. It is the antenna, not the radio, that determines how far your CB can send and receive signals. Many times, people think they have a poorly working radio, when in fact they have a problem with their antenna. The truth is, you can have the best CB radio available, and, without a good antenna, it simply won’t do the job. Here are things to keep in mind when looking for an antenna for your truck:
The ideal circumstances for antenna function would be:
- 102” long. 102 inches is one quarter the radio wavelength for a CB, and therefore the ideal length for signal reception
- Mounted as high as possible on the vehicle. The higher the mounting of the antenna, the better the reception
- Mounted on a vehicle with a metal skin. The antenna uses the metal skin of the vehicle as a ground. If an antenna is mounted on a plastic or fiberglass skin (as in the case of many campers and RVs) it needs to be grounded
- With its load coil above the roofline. The load coil prevents signal distortion and works best when above the roofline of the vehicle
As we can imagine, mounting a 102” antenna to the top center of a truck would be perfect for signal strength and reception, but it creates huge problems for clearance. It is the need to balance the ideal function of an antenna, along with the practicalities of clearance issues, that has led to many different designs of antenna on the market.
The location of the coil is a key factor
In order to reduce the overall clearance of a 102” antenna, the most common solution is to spiral the length into a coil to keep it just as long, without it extending so high. Base-loaded coils are stable since the coil is at the bottom of the antenna, keeping the weight lower and making mounting easier. Center-loaded coils are more efficient and get better reception but move the center of gravity higher up the antenna. And top-loaded coils get the best reception overall but are at higher risk for clearance issues and impacts and abrasions.
When choosing an antenna, try to get one as long as possible, and mount it as high on the vehicle as possible, without causing clearance issues. If you are mounting your antenna below the roofline of the vehicle, choose a center-loaded or top-loaded antenna. Most truck drivers choose center-loaded antennas because they are more efficient than base-loaded antennas and have a higher watt capacity than top loaded.
Investing in a good antenna balances the investment in your radio, making sure that they work together to give you the best signal strength, range, and clarity. You can’t have one without the other.
About PA Speakers
As you may have noticed, many of the CB radios discussed above have a built-in PA capability. But, in order to use the PA feature, you need to get and install PA speakers for your truck.
Having PA capabilities on your truck is occasionally useful for communicating with other drivers on the road immediately around your vehicle but will not provide the amplification you may imagine. In this instance, loudness isn’t indicative of a problem with the speakers: CB radios simply aren’t designed to take a microphone input and deliver big sound, unlike conventional amplifiers.
The more expensive models of truck PA speakers have a built-in amplifier to produce a louder sound, but most of them are simply conventional speakers designed to be mounted outside of the vehicle rather than inside, so they have weatherproofing features. As with any speaker system, they differ in clarity and sound quality, and there are a range of models available.
Having an external PA capability may be useful from time to time, in the same way, a vehicle horn is useful: as a means to communicate with drivers and people around you. If you want to produce louder external sound through your CB radio, you need to invest in an amplifier.
There are a variety of CB radios available on the market, and they remain an important safety and communication tool, as well as a feature and symbol of the truck driving lifestyle. Whether you want a compact model with easy installation and reliable operation, or a more eye-catching CB with lots of features, depends on your style, your truck, your routes, and your needs. But choosing the best CB radio for your needs also involves choosing a good antenna for optimal signal strength and clarity and mounting it correctly on your vehicle.
The CB radio is an essential part of life on the road, not just visually and symbolically, but for allowing you to communicate even when you don’t have mobile coverage, providing protection in case of emergencies. Equipping your truck with everything you need requires a CB radio, to go the distance with you.