Okay, so I’ve been around the block once or twice and remember when CB radio manufacturers got the green light from the Federal Communications Commission in 1977 to add 17 more channels for a total of 40.
That was a big deal. Smokey and the Bandit was king and CB use, led by Burt Reynold's legendary character Bandit and his Snowman trucker sidekick, was booming. Surely all those folks could use 17 more channels.
My brothers and I certainly thought so. We had been sharing a 23-channel Cobra 29 LTD in Southern California and figured that rig would soon be obsolete. After all, who wouldn’t want access to all 40 channels?
And then something interesting happened. Channel 19, CBs' most popular channel where truckers, travelers and hobbyists alike would spend arguably most of their time—or at least start there and move on to another less-crowded channel to continue a conversation—kept its throne as king of all 40 channels and still does today.
Single-sideband didn’t change that, either. With 12 watts of transmission power, eight more than the measly four watts allowed by the FCC on the conventional AM side, you’d think that SSB would absolutely rock the CB world. It didn’t. Cobra, the nation’s largest CB manufacturer, no longer offers SSB on their radios though they did tell CCJ recently that they’re considering a comeback.
Of course, Cobra's return to SSB might hinge on the success of their new AM/FM radios. Cobra’s parent company, Cedar Electronics, led the FM petition effort at the FCC for four long years until the mode was finally approved in 2021.
Last month, Cobra announced the availability of FM alongside AM on their most popular radios. We tested the Cobra 29 LTD Classic and the 19 Mini, both of which offer AM/FM modes. We also tested two of Cobra’s antennas: a 36-inch magnet mount and a 48-inch fiberglass model.
Old tech gets a leg up
For roughly 50 years, the Cobra 29 LTD Classic has offered nearly everything you could want in a CB, making it the best-selling rig in the nation. Now with FM, the shining star of the CB world has gotten even better.
While modes like Dynamike and RF Gain rank as my personal favorites, the nearly bullet-proof rig also offers other features like two noise-limiting modes, Delta Tune (to help refine incoming signals), a brightness switch and SWR (standing wave ratio) calibration.
SWR calibration allows you to tune an antenna so that it maximizes CB performance, critical when you only have up to four watts of transmission power to play with. Failing to get SWR right is not much of an option. Not only do you hinder transmission and reception capabilities, you can also damage your rig, so take the time to do it right.
After pairing up Cobra’s fiberglass antenna with the 29 LTD Classic in my 2014 Toyota Tundra, I was pleased to see that SWR came in well below 2:1 across all 40 channels. Channel 20 was showing 1.5:1, which had me pleased as punch.
The Cobra 29 LTD Classic is just as big as I remember, which had me concerned about mounting. Thankfully, the rig got a nice home on top of the dash in a well normally reserved for my wallet, cell phone or baseball cap.
The 19 Mini blew me away with its small packaging. You could literally fill eight 19 Minis in the space of one 29 LTD. The tiny two-way measures four inches wide, four inches deep and one inch high. I can fit this thing in my pocket. No joke. It features auto squelch, an illuminated display (great for nighttime viewing) and mic channel control so you don’t have to lean forward and change channels on the radio, which I like. I was expecting a tinny sound from the small speaker, but it came through rich enough that I didn’t have to plug in an extension speaker.
I paired up the 19 Mini with the magnet-mount antenna. SWR was easy to adjust with the Astatic PDC1. The antenna comes with a small Allen wrench so that it can be easily raised or lowered in the base mount to reach ideal SWR.
Finding a place to put the 19 Mini is absolutely no problem. In this case, it nested nicely in a small dash cubby of the 2104 Toyota Avalon.
FM is nice but …
Older readers like me will recall when vehicles could still be spec’d with AM radios. Listening to a talk show was OK but music couldn’t compare to FM stereo back at home in the living room. Even FM mono was a leg up over AM save for those long lonely roads in the desert at night when music and talk shows still punch through on AM miles away from nowhere.
During a recent interview with CCJ, Cedar Electronics vice president Mark Karnes pointed out that while AM transmits farther than FM, FM wins when it comes to sound quality.
So the stage was set. I don’t think I could have been more eager to gauge the biggest change CBs have faced in 46 years.
The Avalon stayed behind at the house while I set out in the early evening in the Tundra with the 29 LTD and stopped about a half-mile away for the first test.
To switch to FM on the 19 LTD, push the channel knob. That's it. A red LED will light up on the channel display to indicate that you're in FM. Any received chatter coming through on AM will now be distorted, meaning that you'll have to switch back to AM to understand it.
Results? Negligible. Switching to FM provided a wee bit more clarity but nothing dramatic like switching a song from AM to FM mono. My son who stayed behind to operate the 19 Mini also detected a little bit of improvement on FM but not much.
In fact, when we both initially switched to FM, background noise actually increased. What was strange is that while the meter on the 29 LTD showed a decrease in RF noise when changing to FM, the actual sound of all that signal pileup was louder.
While driving along to our next stop about two miles away, I continued to talk with my son as we switched back and forth between AM and FM modes on channels 11 and 35. The results remained the same: a slight increase in audio quality but not much. Stationary checks performed at two and then later at two-and-half-miles away still provided the same results. With plenty of trees and structures between my son and I, range was limited to about two-and-a-half miles.
Other FM users were nowhere to be found. I thought maybe I'd get someone on State 77, but no luck. I tried several times calling out for a radio check on the FM side of channel 19 but no one hailed back. I tried different channels but only heard users on AM, so there was no way we were going to make a connection.
I drove several miles over to U.S. 231 and parked alongside the highway, thinking I might get a trucker or two on FM. No such luck, though Mud Duck on the AM side of 19 did provide some interesting thoughts against power mics, and how too many users over-modulate and come across sounding pretty bad. I’d have to agree.
I was eager to try FM again in the morning, and while I still noticed a slight audio quality improvement over AM there was still an increase in background noise -- not what I had in mind. I turned up the squelch to eliminate background noise when in standby. Plus, turning the RF Gain control down on the 19 LTD reduces incoming signal pileup.
While I’m not so sure FM will excite the CB world and get more truckers back on the air, it's an interesting feature that certainly can’t hurt. I like the idea of having more options to talk, and FM does just that. Just don't expect dramatic results.