Nov 01, 2023

GMRS Radio Review: We Test Midland's Newest Radios

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Being able to communicate reliably off-road is a big deal. GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) has become the go-to voice communication service for many off-roaders. Nowadays, instead of seeing a CB radio in a 4x4, it's likely a GMRS radio.

A bit about GMRS—The service, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission offers 30 channels that include a bonus function that most consumer radio services like CB, FRS, and MURS do not have: the ability to utilize repeaters. Quite simply, a repeater receives a voice transmission, amplifies it, and retransmits it, which can greatly increase the distance over which you can communicate. A repeater-capable GMRS radio will offer the ability to select and transmit a repeater's "PL tone," which allows access to the repeater. The PL tone is a subaudible tone that opens the input side of the repeater to accept your radio transmission.

To transmit on a GMRS radio requires an FCC license, but it's inexpensive ($35 for a 10-year term), and as the FCC notes, "if you receive a license, any family member, regardless of age, can operate GMRS stations and units within the licensed system." Click here to learn more about how to get a GMRS license.

A company that has made quite a name for itself in the GMRS world is Midland Radio. Midland is a longtime radio manufacturer that has been involved in GMRS radios since the late 1990s. Midland knows radios, and the company was the Official Communication Product of the 2021 and 2022 Four Wheeler Overland Adventure Presented by Jeep, which ensured that all of the participants had the tools to reliably communicate.

One of the cool things about Midland's MicroMobile GMRS product line is that it offers a variety of handheld and mobile radios. Midland's mobile radio lineup is one of the largest on the market, with 5-, 15-, 40-, and 50-watt GMRS radios available. This means Midland has a radio for you no matter how much power you want.

Over the last several months we've had the opportunity to test four of the newest radios in Midland's MicroMobile lineup, the MXT500, MXT575, MXT115, and MXT275. The MXT500 and MXT115 are a traditional two-way radio design, meaning most of the radio controls, the speaker, and the radio display that shows the channel and other settings are on the radio body. The microphone has a transmit button and channel up/down buttons. The MXT575 and the MXT275 are a different design that put the radio controls and the radio display in the Fully-Integrated Control Microphone so the radio base unit can be mounted remotely. We've also had some time to use the MXPW500 Ammo Can Base Station, which offers portable use of an MXT500 radio thanks to its onboard battery.

Before we look at each Midland radio we've been testing, let's look at some of what these radios have in common.

These radios come ready to use, and each kit includes a radio mounting bracket and hardware, wiring, and pre-tuned magnet-mount antenna. This means that in just a few minutes you'll likely be talking it up on your new radio. Each radio has super-simple, uncomplicated menus. There are only 8 to 15 main menu items (depending on the radio), so you won't have to go face down in an owner's manual for hours prior to use.

More commonalities: eight GMRS repeater channels, 142 privacy tones (38 CTCSS and 104 DCS), split-tone capability on the eight repeater channels, wide and narrow bandwidth selection, a USB-C charging port, selectable squelch, channel scan, and NOAA weather radio.

And finally, we found that each of the four Midland radios we tested have fast startup and shutdown times and a premium feel and build quality. Now, on to each radio.

The Midland MXT500 is a 50-watt GMRS radio, and it includes Midland's MXTA51 2.1 dB gain NMO antenna kit. The MXTA51 has a strong, 3.5-inch-diameter magnet-mount base (Midland MXTA12) with rubber boot and an almost 6-inch-long antenna (not including magnetic base).

The MXT500 offers easy-to-select power settings of 50, 25, and 5 watts so you can choose the output that best suits your needs. We've received excellent signal reports from other GMRS users, the 50 watts of power has been outstanding for long-distance comms as well as accessing distant repeaters, and we found the MXT500's built-in speaker kicks out strong audio that can override noisy environments.

The MXT500 has a feature that the other radios we tested don't have: a channel scan skip feature. This means if you want to lock out a busy channel during scanning, you can. We like this feature and find that it's super-simple to toggle a channel on or off.

We really like the MXT500's large, easy-to-read LCD display and we appreciate the ability to select one of seven display colors and one of six display brightness settings. This customization is much appreciated. We've found the "clear" color setting at max brightness appeals to us, but settings such as this are a personal preference.

If you're looking for a quality traditional radio with big power and simple functionality, the MXT500 is a fine choice.

The Midland MXT575 GMRS radio is Midland's newest, and it's a problem-solver radio for off-roaders with limited interior space. With all the controls located in the Fully-Integrated Control Microphone, the radio base unit can be mounted remotely (under a seat, for instance) so only the mic is visible. We've found this to be handy even in our full-size 4x4 pickup. There's even an optional 3-meter (almost 10-foot) MXTA31 Microphone Extension Cable so you can mount the radio base unit a good distance from the mic if needed. The MXT575 comes with Midland's MXTA51 2.1 dB gain NMO antenna kit.

We like that the MXT575 places the LCD display and radio controls at our fingertips. A unique feature of the MXT575 that we like is the ability to select the in-mic speaker, the speaker that's built into the base unit, or both. We found that all three options sound great and can prevail in a noisy 4x4's cab. And with the Fully-Integrated Control Microphone clipped high on the dash, the speaker is very close to our ears, which also aids in hearing radio traffic. And on the topic of the LCD display, we like that when we set a CTCSS or DCS tone it shows the corresponding code number alongside the channel number.

The MXT575 offers both 50-watt and 5-watt power settings. At the 50-watt setting we've received good signal reports from other users, and we've been able to hit distant repeaters. The 5-watt setting has worked well for short-distance, vehicle-to-vehicle comms, and has even allowed us to talk to a repeater over 10 miles away. Of course, your results may vary, depending on several factors.

The Midland MXT575 50-watt radio is an impressive, well-designed, powerful radio that puts everything you need in the palm of your hand.

The old saying "good things come in small packages" is especially true regarding Midland's small but powerful MXT115 GMRS radio. This radio is very compact (without the mounting bracket it measures approximately 4.25 inches square, and only an inch tall) but punches out 15 watts of power. The radio only has four buttons, and these buttons are thoughtfully configured so they're all that's needed to access the radio's settings and features. There's a lot to be said for simplicity.

We like the MXT115's LCD display that's easy to read even in direct sunlight, and we appreciate the ability to select one of eight colors. As with the MXT500, we've found the clear color setting is appealing to us.

The MXT115 radio package includes the MXTA13 2.1 dB antenna that measures a tad over 6.5 inches in total overall length. This is a one-piece antenna, meaning the antenna, magnetic base, and coaxial cable are one unit (non-NMO). Although small, the antenna's performance is impressive, and we had radio-to-radio comms of around 8 miles in the rolling farmland of northern Illinois with this radio and antenna combination. Of course, your range may be less or more, depending on a variety of factors.

We often travel with the MXT115, and since the radio has a low amp-draw, we can simply plug it into the power point of rental vehicles or of 4x4s we're testing. And we like that power is selectable for 5- or 15-watt output.

We think the Midland MXT115 is a fine GMRS radio. We like its design, size, portability, and performance.

The MXT275 GMRS radio shares many similarities with the MXT575 in relation to its basic design, meaning all the radio controls are in the Fully-Integrated Control Microphone, so the radio base unit can be mounted remotely. The optional 3-meter (almost 10-foot) MXTA31 Microphone Extension Cable works with the MXT275, so the radio base unit can be mounted a fair distance from the mic, and like the MXT575 the MXT275, it can be configured to use either the in-mic speaker, the speaker that's built into the base unit, or both. It's also worth noting that the MXT575 and MXT275 menus are identical.

The two big differences between the MXT275 and the MXT575 is that the MXT275 is a 15-watt radio, whereas the MXT575 is a 50-watt radio. The other difference is that the MXT275 radio base unit is noticeably smaller than the radio base unit of the MXT575.

Like the MXT115 radio, the MXT275 package includes the MXTA13 2.1 dB antenna. This radio and antenna configuration has worked well for us. Example: During a recent road trip from South Carolina to Tennessee we had two vehicles equipped with the MXT275, and depending on terrain we were able to communicate over 10 miles at times. We should also note that the Fully-Integrated Control Microphone has proved that it's durable and able to take a beating. Ours has been bounced around and tossed into luggage, and so far has no issues.

Like the MXT575, the ergonomics of the MXT275 Fully-Integrated Control Microphone translate to easy channel, volume, and other changes, and the radio takes up very little vehicle interior space. Power is adjustable for either 15 or 5 watts of output, and the power cable comes equipped with a plug, so the radio is easily powered via a vehicle power point.

After lengthy testing we can highly recommend the MXT275 for those needing a small, capable radio that outputs decent wattage. It's a great, super-portable GMRS radio.

One of the most innovative and exciting new products to come to the consumer radio scene in recent memory is the smartly designed Midland MXPW500 Ammo Can Base Station, intended to be used with the company's 50-watt MXT500 GMRS radio. Expertly crafted around a genuine "Fat 50"-style ammo can that's designed to carry .50- or 5.56-caliber rounds for an M16, AR-15, or M4 platform, the MXPW500 is the perfect carrying case for an MXT500 radio.

The MXPW500 Ammo Can Base Station is loaded with features, starting with a powerful internal 10Ah LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) chemistry battery that can power the MXT500 for up to 50 hours of listening, or up to 20 hours of general use. The unit includes an AC power supply, and an optional 40-watt folding solar panel can be used to extend runtimes and can fully recharge the unit. Midland says the unit is compatible with up to a 60-watt panel.

Inside the lid is a Midland quick reference guide for the MXT500 radio that includes a legend for the radio menu, the phonetic alphabet, as well as the frequencies for GMRS repeaters and weather channels. There are also mounts for the clever 3D-printed feet in the lid. The control panel side of the unit features a cubby for the radio and mic, dual 3-watt external speakers, power switch, a headphone jack, the antenna connector, charging and power status indicator, power-in Anderson plugs, an ammeter, a voltmeter, 3-amp USB-A port, and even a switch for an internal fan to keep the radio cool. A channel frequency chart is also labeled on the control panel.

Due to the extreme durability of the ammo can case, the MXPW500 is waterproof and nearly crushproof, making the 17-pound (without radio) base station an ideal choice for the sometimes rugged conditions that can be encountered while 'wheeling.

It seems like everything has been thought through with this unit, and we can't think of a better setup if you need GMRS portability in a variety of settings. With real-world range reaching more than 20 miles, depending on your antenna setup and conditions, you can't go wrong with the MXPW500 Ammo Can Base Station, and this exceptionally well-built and high-quality setup is the first choice for all our basecamp GMRS communication needs. -Sean P. Holman

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What Is GMRS? Midland Knows Radios What We've Been Testing Similarities Midland MicroMobile MXT500 Midland MicroMobile MXT575 Midland MicroMobile MXT115 Midland MicroMobile MXT275 Midland MXPW500 Ammo Can Base Station -Sean P. Holman