CHIRP fishfinders are all the rage, and the technology has already filtered down to the low-end. But is super cheap CHIRP as good as the real thing? It’s hard to believe that the same technology we were paying thousands for a few short years ago is now available at a small fraction of the cost. Yet there are now two CHIRP units on the market, the Lowrance Elite-4X CHIRP and the Raymarine Dragonfly 4Pro, which both cost right around $300. That’s cheap. Super cheap. So does it get you the real CHIRP?
To find out, I took these units out on the water and looked at some fish. Lots of fish. I even caught a few, to prove they were really there. And at the same time, I used a “real” CHIRP unit, one which costs about ten times as much as these fishfinders, to see what kind of differences appeared on-screen.
The Lowrance Elite-4X is a very compact (6.6” high, 3.8” wide) color LCD unit with a vertically-oriented 4.3” diagonal display and 480 x 272 pixels. It’s a combo fishfinder/chartplotter, is waterproof to IPX7 standards, and puts out 250 watts RMS. It claims a maximum depth of 300’ at 455/800 kHz (DownScan), 1,000’ at 83/200 kHz, and 2,500’ at 50/200 kHz. CHIRP ranges are 40 to 60 kHz (low), 60 to 100 kHz (medium), and 160 to 240 kHz (high). The Elite-4X also has a microSD slot, and can support a wide range of chartography. MSRP is $299, but you’ll find it for significantly less with a little help from Google.
Raymarine’s 5.7” wide, 5.7” tall Dragonfly-4Pro shares that MSRP, and also has a 4.3” screen with 480 x 272 pixels. However, this one’s oriented horizontally. Personally I like this better than the vertical-upright screen. The Dragonfly-4Pro is also a combination fishfinder/chartplotter with an IPX7 waterproof rating, and Raymarine claims a maximum depth of 600’ with CHIRP Downvision and 900’ with CHIRP sonar. The transducer is specifically designed for the Dragonfly system, which allows the unit to CHIRP in DownVision mode through 320 to 380 kHz, and in conventional mode, through 170 to 230 kHz. The 320 to 380 kHz band is the same one Raymarine uses for its side-scanning CP200 system, which in my experience, provides an ideal balance between range and detail. (For the full story, read Peripheral Vision: Side-Scanning Fishfinder Myths, Debunked!)
A few points need to be addressed about both of these units. Remember that they are, in fact, super-cheap. The screens are small—tiny, really—when compared to more expensive units. Although they both have split-screen capabilities, at least with my aging eyes it was more or less impossible to use either unit in that mode because everything was just too small to read. Just imagine trying to use a chartplotter with a 2.15” screen, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Also, don’t forget that the maximum depth ratings claimed by manufacturers are often based on ideal conditions and may be quite optimistic—some more so than others. While I wasn’t in water deep enough to push these units to their maximums, in the past I’ve found that while some fishfinders are useable as advertised, others are effective to only half or even just a third of the claimed maximum depth.
Fishing for Information
Before I tell you what happened, remember that the idea of this experiment wasn’t to test the Lowrance versus the Raymarine, but to test cheap CHIRP in general. And considering how many similarities there are between these units, ranging from price to screen size, it was no surprise that they delivered similar results. Which one would be better for you is a decision best made after you've tried both units (at least in "Demo" mode) and discovered how you feel about the menu system, screen, button layout, and chartography of each.
My testing grounds were the waters of Eastern Bay, an off-shoot of the Chesapeake, where a 100’ deep hole off Bloody Point Lighthouse is surrounded by a number of sharp drop-offs teeming with striped bass, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel. With both units in conventional mode, creeping down an immense drop-off from 24’ to 100’ I saw exactly what I’d expect from a modern LCD color fishfinder. Large fish created good arches with red in the center tailing off into greens and blues. Bait-balls of menhaden, prevalent in the area, were also clearly visible, as were the stripers shadowing them. And this is where CHIRP comes into play. On many other inexpensive finders I would have expected more of the marks created by larger fish to blend in with the schooled bait.
The small screen size of these units, however, are a barrier to harnessing this enhanced detail. In order to get the most out of the picture, especially in depths over 40’ or so, I had to zoom in, eliminating large portions of the water column. The full-blown unit at my helm showed only a slightly higher level of detail at this depth, but with a screen four times the size, I could look at the entire water column. And in areas deeper than this, the cheap CHIRPs started lagging a bit more in the detail department—a drop of 10 percent or so.
In scanner mode (DownScan for Lowrance, DownVision for the Dragonfly), pinging at the higher frequency ranges pushes detail levels up even more—for structure, that is. Creeping up and down the ledge I could see every outcropping, rock, and shelf in immense detail, on both units. But, as is usually the case with high-frequency scanners, fish didn’t really arch. They appeared more as blobs or dots, and while large fish were still distinguishable from the schools, it took a closer study of the screen and plenty of zooming to determine which was which.
The Bottom Line
Does super-cheap CHIRP work? The answer is yes, and both of these units are a step up in inexpensive fishfinder technology when compared to previous models at the same price-point. But don't expect the same results you’d get from a full-blown CHIRP system. And the tiny screens provided by cheap CHIRPers just can’t deliver in the same way as the larger, more expensive ones do.
If you want a fishfinder that pings through deep water, you’ll be better served by digging deeper into your bank account. If you want a fishfinder you can use in split-screen mode alongside the chartplotter, a bigger unit will be better. And obviously, if you want a system that’s expandable and integrated with your other electronics, super-cheap is not the way to go. But if all you want to do is find fish in relatively shallow lakes, bays, and rivers, then super-cheap CHIRP is worth checking out.
For more information, visit Raymarine and Lowrance.