There are several popular RC radio manufacturers you can choose from. Futaba Radios, Spektrum Radios, JR Radios, and Hitec Radios round out the major four big names.
There are dozens of other low cost, almost toy grade RC radios on the market as well; but I am focusing on quality computerized radios that will give you years of versatility, customer support, trouble free flying, won't lock you into some obscure protocol, and offer good resale value.
So which is best?
Ask 5 different people and you will likely come up with 5 different opinions. You see, most RC pilots are very passionate about the radio brand they use, more so than just about any other RC component.
I'm sure you have all read or heard about the so called "brand specific crashes". You know, the Futaba radio users call them "Spektrum Crashes", the Spektrum or JR users call them "Futaba Crashes" and so on. Unfortunatly there is little in the way of supporting data to back those claims up other than a few known faults with any one brand's specific model/s such as firmware bugs or a bad component. As I said on my RC Radio Page, I would not hesitate to say that the majority of crashes caused by these so called brand specific radio issues resulted from inadiquate voltage/power issues on-board the aircraft and not from radio glitches (assuming correct installation of components of course).
To be honest, all of these manufactures build very good radios from entry level up to pro, and brand loyalty plays more of a roll these days than function and performance.
What makes one radio system/model truly better than another is the antenna glue (antenna circuitry component quality), thoroughly debugged firmware, manufacturing quality (e.g. soldering connections, cable interconnect, toggle switch & potentiometer quality, etc). Sticking with the name brands generally assures you get this build/component quality and then you just have to choose the radio model that has the specific features you're looking for and appeals to your needs. It could come down to somethings as simple (but ultimately very important) as how good the radio feels while you are holding it/using it.
Is the switch and dial placement comfortable/intuitive, is the display screen easy to see, does it feel balanced in your hands, does it have nice soft rubberized grips over hard, slippery plastic. All these "ergonomics" play a big roll in radio comfort & useability. In other words, if you have a hobby shop that you can visit to actually feel the radio in your hands before ordering/purchasing it, that can be a big advantage to choosing one you will ultimately be happy with.
This Article I have on my site really dives into the technology behind today's modern 2.4GHz spread spectrum RC radios. It clears up much of the "marketing & brand "X" crash hype" out there.
I have and will always trust Futaba. I still have every Futaba radio I ever purchased and they are all still working like champs. I have never been let down with any Futaba product.
I know when I first started out in this hobby – Futaba radios really were better than most other RC radio manufacturers; but now a days, all these name brand players are all pretty much on a level playing field.
Futaba's really hits the mark on their intermediate to
higher end products. Their entry level 6EX & 6J six channel computerized radios (at least
for RC helicopters) are missing a few important features in my option (throttle and pitch curve graphical representation to be specific).
their new 2.4 GHz performance FASST series and very affordable FHSS series are honestly some of the best intermediate & advanced radios on the market right now. As with most of the big name radio brands these days - the intermediate to higher end Futaba radio models support aircraft telemetry.
Futaba has two distinct 2.4GHz spread spectrum protocols - FASST & FHSS which are not compatible with each other so that is the one thing to be aware of when choosing a futaba system or subsequent receivers. Futaba S-Bus communication network is well supported by most high end flybarless systems on the market.
Hitec was left behind for a couple years when 2.4GHz Spread Spectrum Modulation was introduced; but Hitec has caught up to this new technology and has three very good 2.4 GHz radios on the market right now.
Their Optic 6 Sport 2.4GHz is a nice entry level 6 channel computerized radio and their Aurora 9 2.4GHz 9 channel radio offers amazing value with its telemetry capability and touch screen display. I personally don't like touch screen displays on RC radios but that is just me. The Aurora 9X takes it one step further with lighting fast 4096 resolution. HiTec is known for having some of the best RC radio bang for the buck out there.
As you can likely guess by the photo, my go-to radio right now is the JR X9503. I've had it now for just over 4 years and it has never let me down once. No question, I wouldn't mind getting something a little newer, but why mess with what works and feels so good in my paws. I also don't think any Spektrum offering yet has nearly as nice of a display screen as JR's.
Like Futaba radios, JR has been in the RC game for as long as I can remember
and has a loyal following. JR has traditionally built very high end
products that have been used by many professional RC pilots world wide
and in the RC heli world is perhaps still the number one choice. JR originally licensed up with Spektrum to take advantage of Spektrum's patented DSM2/X
2.4 GHz spread spectrum technology and that is the protocol I currently fly with. I love the fact I have so many receiver options (either JR DSM2/X or Spektrum DSM2/X) that are also well supported by most flybarless systems allowing for easy satellite RX hookup. I can also use it with all of Blade's or ParkZone's BNF helicopters & airplanes that all run on DSM2/X.
There are still JR DSM2/X radios available here in North America (the X9503, 11X, & 12X), but I don't think they will be around for much longer; so if you are in the market for a DSM2/X JR radio, you should probably act sooner, rather than later.
JR now has it's own unique spread spectrum protocol called DMSS (Dual Modulation Spectrum System). This new system is not compatible at all
with the Spektrum shared DSM2/X.
The nice thing is the menu layouts and access have remained the same; so if you are already a JR user, it is very easy and intuitive to migrate over to the newer DMSS models (XG6, XG8, XG11, & XG14).
Love em or hate em, Spektrum continues to dominate the 2.4 GHz RC radio market. This is not because they are leaps & bounds better than the rest, they just build a solid product with features most of us want at very good pricing with great product support.
Spektrum was after all, the first to the spread spectrum game over 10 years ago (at least in the hobby grade RC radio market), and they won a loyal following that continues to this day.
Spektrum continues to improve their products with features such as quad bearing gimbals even on their low cost DX6, and come out with neat features before many other brands do such as SD card support and voice alert first seen on the DX9. Spektrum is not quite up to the overall quality of the pro/higher end JR & Futaba radios; but you also don't have to remorgage your house to purchase one. Their flag ship DX18 for example is under $800 bucks.
If you want a radio with telemetry, voice alerts, and a backlit display for under $230 bucks - the six channel DX6 offers perhaps the best value of any decent quality RC radio out there right now.
As I mentioned in the JR section, I personally fly every bird I own including the turbine powered Intrepid with Spektrum's DSM2/X protocol and it's never once let me down. I do also fly with a Spektrum DX8 radio. It's my JR backup radio should I need it. Spektrum has some of the best diversity radio systems out there in my opinion and I like the fact that most good flybarless systems are fully compatible with Spektrum's satellite receivers.