Fishfinders from the likes of Raymarine and Simrad used to ping, but now they CHIRP. At least, that’s what we’re told. Unless you’re a Garmin fan, in which case they use something called Spread-Spectrum Technology (SST).  Maybe you’d go to Airmar (the company that produces the transducers used by all of these companies) to get the straight talk, but you’d discover that in different places Airmar uses both CHIRP and Spread Spectrum to describe the latest technology in fishfinders.

Note the depth, shown in both split-screen views -- Simrad's CHIRP is clearly seeing bottom in 10,000 feet of water!


So here’s a tip for anyone who’s confused: The technology used in all these new fishfinders is essentially the same. (To provide a handhold on what it’s all about, we covered the basics of CHIRP and SST in New Wave Fishfinders: Garmin vs. Raymarine vs. Simrad.)

But the question remains -- how are you supposed to know which one to buy? Is one system really better than the others?  What does one offer that the others don’t? Turns out that for most of us, the answers will be found in brand familiarity, operating features, and pricing.

Garmin’s unit is called the GSD 26. This SST  black-box fishfinder communicates via the Garmin Marine Network with the following Garmin units: the GPSMAP 4000, GPSMAP 5000, GPSMAP 6000, and GPSMAP 7000. MSRP is $1,999. Along with the advantages all of these new units offer, one of the unique abilities of the Garmin is to pump out a massive amount of power (up to 3kW) with manually adjustable output from 300 watts on up. The frequency can also be manually adjusted from 25 to 210 kHz, so someone who thinks he has the perfect range dialed in for a specific fish species or situation can set up the unit to peer into the depths just as they like.

Simrad’s BSM-2 Broadband sounder is compatible with all Simrad NSE and NSO MFD displays, and costs around $250 more than the Garmin. The Simrad puts out less power at 250 watts, and lets the user select frequency ranges spanning from 25 to 210 kHz, as well as offering full-auto. The biggest difference here is in the level of automation, which is a pretty straightforward trade-off: You get a bit less control than with the Garmin, but as a result operation is lot easier. Just how useful that extra control really is can be debated. Simrad also puts a numeric claim on the increased sensitivity over old-tech fishfinders (Garmin does not), saying that it’s five times better at 500’.

Raymarine’s unit is tagged the CP450. It was introduced to the press at the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show, where we tested it on the water for the first time. It will be rolled out to the public in early 2012. Pricing has been brought down below Garmin and Simrad a notch, with an MSRP of $1,610. Since this unit isn’t on the market just yet, it’s tough to say what street pricing will look like, but usually it’s several hundred dollars below the stated MSRP—so Raymarine does seem to be undercutting the competitors. It also has a couple of rather unique features. The amp is a class D, so it draws less power and uses it more efficiently. The power it outputs (up to 1kW) is also modulated automatically to match the transducer the unit is hitched up to. Another interesting change comes in the zoom mode. Instead of merely blowing up the picture on-screen, the CP450 actually adds data to help prevent pixelization. And the frequency range runs from 25 to 250 kHz.

All three of these units are waterproofed to IPX6 specs, which means they survived blasts of pressurized water coming from all directions for a duration of at least three minutes. All claim maximum depth ranges of approximately 10,000’. All claim that their advanced digital signal processing increases accuracy and sensitivity. And all can be networked with multifunction display systems. Finally, in all of these cases you’ll have to figure in another significant cost, for transducers. Multi-frequency fishfinders require specific multi-frequency transducers, and you can’t simply add the black box to your system, plug in your existing transducer, and expect to start probing the depths. These multi-pinging pucks are for the most part through-hulls, (though there are a couple of new transom-mounted options now available) and can cost anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars. Naturally, in many cases you’ll also need to shell out big bucks for mounting, on top of the cost of the transducer itself. Put these expenditures into the cost-column along with the price of the fishfinder’s brain, and obviously, upgrading to a multi-frequency finder could fracture your finances. So make sure your choice is a good one—which brings us back to the original question of which unit is the best.

The latest fishfinder black boxes from Garmin, Raymarine, and Simrad.

Again, we have to remember that these technologies are essentially the same. Unless one of the relatively minor differences discussed above is extremely important to you, in most cases it makes sense simply to go with the brand you know and love. This might sound like a cop-out, but it’s the simple reality of the matter. Consider the fact that if your boat already has brand X and you decide you want brand Y, you’ll also have to buy a new multi-function display. If the system is networked, that means spending gobs of cash for an entirely new electronics suite. On top of that, the learning curve when switching brands can be steep. Besides, whether you’re talking about Garmin, Raymarine, or Simrad, upgrading to this technology will significantly boost your ability to see beneath the surface.

When we tested these units, we found no obvious performance difference between them. All offered the advertised increased sensitivity, depth range, and target separation. So choose the system that will work best with what you’re running now. If you don’t like what you’re running now and want a complete change of system, get yourself a full demo of each manufacturer’s full electronics suite and go with the operating features and user-interface logic you’re most comfortable with.  In terms of performance, you can’t go wrong.