How To Select The Proper Police Scanner

So you want a police scanner?  There are definitely some things to consider before you get one. And in this day and age the old saying goes “There’s an app for that”.  There are multiple apps you can download for your phone, and they work, but they also have some considerations.

First and foremost, that stream to your app IS SOMEONE ELSE’S SCANNER.  It’s that simple.  And that stream is reliant upon their internet, and your internet.  An app may work for you but if you clicked through on a blog about Police Scanner Selection you’re likely here because you want your own scanner.   Let’s get to the considerations.

How Much Is This Going To Cost

It depends.  Modern Digital Trunking Radio systems require expensive hardware to turn that digital signal into voice.  Radios capable of following trunked radio systems are going to cost you probably at least $250 and probably more like $500 for a decent one.  That being said, if you live in small town USA where they use Analog FM radios or you just want to listen to the local airport control tower you just need an Analog radio which are CHEAP and can be found used for hardly anything on eBay or Facebook Marketplace.

First you need to know what you are up against.  The search begins at RadioReference.com Database pages.  Select your State and then your County.

RR Database for Craven County NC

From here you select the systems you want to monitor.  All my trunked radio systems above are some kind of digital communication so I need a digital trunking radio.

Encryption

The next consideration is encryption.  If your City, County, Town, State, Jurisprudence, etc.  is encrypted…….you are done before you ever get started.  You can’t listen to the scanner at all.

Here is a wiki list of agencies that use full encryption.

The only exception might be if you are a journalist.  Many jurisdictions that use encryption provide radios to journalists for transparency.  Anyway, before you drop $700 for a high speed, low drag radio you better find out if they use encryption in your area.   Ask around or better yet join the Forums at RadioReference.com and ask.

Most of the websites that sell scanners can tell you as well.  My favorite place to buy a scanner is Bearcat Warehouse.  That link takes you to their “What Scanner Will Work” page.   Know that if you fill it out though you are giving your contact info to a salesman.  That’s how life works!   Actually I don’t think I would buy a Scanner from anyone but Bearcat Warehouse.

I’m A Newbie And I Have No Clue How To Program A Scanner

If you buy your scanner from Amazon you will have to learn how to program it.  If you buy your scanner from Bearcat Warehouse, THEY WILL PROGRAM IT FOR YOU.  If you tell them “I want to hear New Bern Public Safety, North Carolina VIPER, the Airport, and the Feds”, then by golly that is what you will get.  Take it out of the box, turn it on, and you are in business.

BUT NO MATTER WHAT……….At some point you will have to update the database when changes are made to the systems around you.  And yes, the systems change somewhat frequently.   So you are going to have to learn at least the basic tenants of scanner programming someday.

Don’t These Scanners Have A Zip Code Feature?

Yep, they sure do.  However plugging your zip code into one and hitting ENTER will bring is EVERY FREAKING CHANNEL AND SYSTEM AROUND YOU.  In my small town there are dozens and dozens and dozens of analog channels and 6 Trunked Radio systems.  Imagine if you lived in a big city like Charlotte NC.  The operative word in SCANNER is SCAN.  The more stuff to scan, the longer it takes, and while it is going through those hundreds of things that you don’t care about you are missing the calls you want to hear.   My zip code search on my Whistler TRX-1 stops on pager signals.  I can’t listen to anything while the digital blurb is going on.  That being said scanners have a skip or avoid feature.  As you are listening you can avoid things you don’t want to hear.  It might take you more than a few listening sessions to get things pared down like you like it.

SIMULCAST

Simulcast is where your system has several antennas and they all transmit the same data at the same time.  Some scanners do NOT DO WELL WITH SIMULCAST SYSTEMS.  Poor handling of Simulcast will cause horrific distortion or robot voice.

Even here in sleepy New Bern, NC the local Public Safety System has 2 towers.  (From the FCC Database)

# TWR ID Type Antenna
Height
Structure
Height
Elevation Address
1 1056837 GTOWER 213.0 219.0 3.0 3600 WINDHILL COURT (APPROX 2 KM N OF STATE HWY 43 55)
2 0.0 0.0 0.0
3 0.0 0.0 0.0
4 0.0 0.0 0.0
5 1004821 GTOWER 91.4 97.5 7.0 5100 COUNTY LINE RD (RIVERDALE)
6 0.0 0.0 0.0

I have a Whister TRX-1 which costs about $550.  It is AWFUL on Simulcast systems and in fact I couldn’t use it on New Bern Public Safety at all.  After having it for years and being angry that it was a $550 paperweight, I moved across town about a year ago way out in the country.   Now that I’m far away from one of the antennas it works great.

On the flip side of that, I have three Uniden scanners that handle my local Simulcast systems marvelously.  I have a Home Patrol 2, an SDS100, and an SDS200.

DMR And NXDN And ProVoice

All are digital standards.  You may be surrounded by interesting transmissions from people who use DMR or NXDN.  I don’t care much about ProVoice. When I travelled I used to love to listen to the airport baggage handlers on DMR.  Or the mall cops.  Or school bus drivers.  People who don’t have radio discipline who think they aren’t being listened to say some funny stuff.

The railroads here use NXDN.   What kid (old man) doesn’t love hearing the trains?

On my Uniden radios YOU HAVE TO PAY EXTRA (A LOT EXTRA) TO DECODE DMR AND NXDN.  On my Whistler TRX-1 they decode that stuff out of the box.

Let’s say that there is only 1 or 2 things of interest near you for DMR and NXDN.  Uniden Decode keys are $75 EACH.  So decoding DMR/NXDN/ProVoice is going to cost you an extra $225.  If you have an RTL-SDR radio (maybe $30) you can get a free program called DSD+ (or $10 for the pro version called FastLane).  For $30 or $40 you can decode all that stuff on your laptop.

GPS

If you scan on the move some scanners allow you to connect a GPS puck to them.  As you move from place to place the GPS will move the scanner with you.  My Uniden SDS100 and HomePatrol 2 allow for this.  My Whistler TRX-1 does not.

Summary For My Location

I have several Trunked systems here, and only 2 I want to listen to.  Both are P25 Phase 1 systems and both are Simulcast.  I also listen to DMR and NXDN.  My best choice for a scanner are the Uniden offerings which handle Simulcast distortion extremely well.  The downside is the cost of the scanner plus the cost of the DMR and NXDN decoding.  If my Whistler did better Simulcast reception I’d recommend getting a used TRX-1 but remember you can’t use GPS with the TRX-1.

If you want to join the ranks of scanner geek I strongly recommend cornering an old radio geek or amateur radio operator and asking them “What scanner do you recommend for this area?”  Trust me, they’ll tell you.  If you called me out of the blue and asked me what scanner was best for New Bern I’d take you to lunch, pay for it,  and tell you more than you ever wanted to know. I love talking about radios.

Don’t you wish you could buy these kinds of things locally?  Remember Radio Shack?  You could go in there and listen to one before you bought it.  No such joy these days.  Gotta find a geek.

There is a lot to think about before investing in that first scanner.

  • What systems do you want to track?
  • Are they digital or analog?
  • Are they encrypted?
  • Do you need DMR/NXDN/ProVoice decoding?
  • Can I get it programmed before delivery for my region?
  • Are there Simulcast systems around you?
  • Will you want to use a GPS puck with your scanner?

4 thoughts on “How To Select The Proper Police Scanner

  1. Jerry

    john, Two great posts about scanners…My wife and I used to live in Newbern (5-6yrs ago) and I still have my RS pro 2053.
    I have now gotten re interested in scanning in central Florida and know about RadioRefference, but I’m having trouble understanding the acronyms they use and how to tell trunked and nxdn and how to tell if they are simulcast or not. I’ve looked at numerous YouTube vids and most of them are by folks that just want to talk and not much help at all. This is a big ask but would it be possible for you to do a post on how to read (interpret)the info on RadioReference for the location a person is in, so it can be put into the scanner properly.

    Reply
    1. John Hagensieker Post author

      Jerry,

      That’s a great idea going over the systems in greater detail and putting up antenna information. I’m working on another blog right now but I’ll sketch out some notes and see where it takes me.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Getting a Police Scanner Part Deux | John’s Tech Blog

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