Like many carpenters, I enjoy listening to music at work. When I was starting out, there were only a couple of options: Leave the truck radio on with the door open (and risk having to jump the battery later on) or listen to a bad-sounding boombox that was held together with duct tape and had a wire hanger for an antenna. That changed about 10 years ago, when manufacturers began to produce radios designed to stand up to the rigors of the job site. Since then, I've owned a number of job-site radios and have noticed steady improvement in their features, design, and durability. With the recent introduction of several new models, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at what's available.
For this article I took the following radios onto job sites and tried them out: Bosch's Power Box PB360D, DeWalt's DC012, Makita's BMR100W, Milwaukee's 2790-20 and 2590-20, Porter-Cable's PC18JR, and Ridgid's R84082. Here's what we learned about them over a several-month period.
A job-site radio is a boombox that's been "ruggedized" in some manner. Most have weather-resistant speakers and very sturdy roll cages. To prove how tough their radios are, manufacturers show them being thrown off roofs, run over by trucks, and hurled into the air with catapults. Realistically, the most that has ever happened to a radio on one of our sites is that it was smacked by a board or fell off a bench. Nevertheless, we performed some "crash testing" of our own, throwing the radios several feet into the air and letting them land on the subfloor, then dropping them from the second-floor deck. None suffered any permanent damage. The battery popped out of the Ridgid, a knob came off the DeWalt, and the battery cover came off the Makita; we put the parts back and everything worked fine. As far as I'm concerned, these radios are all sufficiently sturdy to be used on construction sites.
Job-site radios can be run on 110-volt household current and cordless tool batteries from their respective manufacturers. The Bosch and DeWalt models also function as chargers, running off the batteries when not plugged in and charging batteries when they are. The ability to charge batteries with a radio is not a big plus to me; we own enough different brands of cordless tools that we always have chargers on site anyway.
A number of radios have built-in power receptacles. I really like this feature because there are never enough places to plug things in. The Porter-Cable has two and the DeWalt three standard receptacles; the Bosch has four GFCI receptacles with spring-loaded covers. The Bosch and the Milwaukee 2790-20 have 12-volt DC jacks (like the ones in the dashboard of a vehicle) that can be used to charge or power cellphones and MP3 players.
Today's job-site radios have auxiliary inputs – usually 3.5-mm jacks – so you can use the speakers to play streaming audio or recorded music from such input devices as MP3 players, smartphones, and satellite radios. Each radio comes with a short cord to connect its input jack to the output (headphone) jack of the input device. The Makita has two 3.5-mm jacks, and the Ridgid has a 3.5-mm jack and an iPod dock. The Bosch has even more: two 3.5 mm jacks, a Sirius radio connector, a USB port, and an SD card slot. The card slot and port connect to an internal MP3 player so you can put music on a thumb drive or SD card and play it in the radio.
Several radios have media compartments, where an MP3 player or phone can be protected from damage while being used as an input device. The compartment contains the input jacks and is covered by a door that latches over a gasket. There's usually some kind of strap or wrap to prevent the device from banging around inside. Media compartments are a great idea – they're good insurance against dust, rain, and falls.
The doors on the Ridgid and the smaller Milwaukee (2590-20) swing down from the front of the radio. The compartments on these two models are just big enough to hold an MP3 player or a smartphone – though you may need to take the case off to get it to fit. Ridgid's compartment is basically an iPod dock with an added jack for non-Apple devices. The Milwaukee 2790-20 has a large compartment on top, with space for both the battery and an input device. The Makita's compartment is similar, only it's on the back of the radio. Bosch's media bay contains a 3.5-mm jack, a Sirius connector, an SD card slot, and a USB port; its second 3.5-mm jack is on the outside so you can play devices that won't fit in the bay.
Although we normally listen to MP3s or streaming music, we tried out the tuners to see how they work. The tuners are digital and get better reception than the analog tuners in earlier job-site radios. We did notice that the reception was not as good on the models with built-in receptacles when chargers were plugged into them.
For the most part, the sound quality is good on all of these radios, but some are louder and better at high volume (the speakers don't distort) than others. Volume won't be an issue if you work indoors, but we're spread out over a framing site, and – depending on the time of day and how close the neighbors are – we sometimes want to play music loud. The small Milwaukee does not have the power to be used on a large framing site, and the Makita distorts when you turn it up high. The others sounded good at high volume, especially the Bosch, which has a subwoofer and speakers on all four sides.
The Bottom Line
Of these radios, we like the Bosch the best. It's powerful, sounds great, and has almost every feature that exists for a radio of this type: GFCI outlets, a 12-volt DC jack, and multiple input options for phones, MP3 players, and the like.
Tied for second and third are the Ridgid and the Milwaukee 2790-20. They're loud, sound good at low and high volume, and have weather-resistant compartments for input devices. The 12-volt jack on the Milwaukee is handy for charging phones; and for the owners of Apple devices, the Ridgid's iPhone dock is very cool.
Tim Uhler is a lead framer for Pioneer Builders in Port Orchard, Wash., and a Tools of the Trade contributing editor.