As I say in my book, you don’t need to go broke buying starter equipment. You just need to be smart.

I do agree that your safest bet when buying your first (or any) machine is to stick with brand name manufacturers. There are many situations in which generic products will do just as well as brand name items. In my experience, metal detectors are not one of those…with perhaps one exception. One thing I can say for sure is that it’s a good idea to avoid any machines made in China. I have yet to see one worth any amount of money.

Let’s first examine the various levels of machine grades. There are no real hard-and-fast dividing lines between these levels because there’s lots of overlap between machine capabilities and pricing, but you have to establish something for reference. Here are the categories I’ve created in my mind regarding this, with rough corresponding retail prices:

  1. Toys/Children’s Models – Anything under $50. These are essentially one-button, one-function machines that will tell you a target is present and not much else.
  2. True Beginner/Starter Machines – $50-300. These may be analog or digital machines—though most are now digital—and will perform multiple useful functions reliably, ensuring a true experience worth judging regarding whether or not this hobby is for you.
  3. Intermediate Machines – $300-800. These machines offer advanced circuitry, more rugged and durable construction, and more features that veteran users can appreciate without being overwhelmed.
  4. Advanced/Pro Level Models – $800 & up. These are the cream of the crop, characterized by highly refined circuitry and top-quality construction and ruggedness. Many offer wireless and removable controls, and are designed to be lightweight for longer comfort.

Notice that I don’t say the more expensive machines will find more stuff. Yes, they do tend to be built and programmed to do so, but as I will always say: Finding good stuff is more about the experience, knowledge, research and performance of the operator rather than the machine.

These categories are solely my own opinions, not anything officially established in the hobby. If there were any such official benchmarks that I was aware of, I’d use those. But I think this scale, based on manufacturer suggested retail prices, is pretty accurate. Be aware that dealers often aggressively discount from MSRP, but only to a certain point, below which they’re not allowed to go by the manufacturer.

Exception to the Rule

9-Function Detector from Harbor Freight ToolsThe one exception I mentioned above is the 9-Function Metal Detector from Harbor Freight Tools. I break my rule here of not advocating any one particular machine simply because I believe it’s a rare exception to the “too cheap to be any good” rule, and I truly want beginners to know of this excellent option. I have owned two of these machines, and have purchased them as gifts for two other people so far. I love this detector for starters for the following reasons:

  • Affordable and Easy to Find – It retails for $49.99 and can be purchased off the shelf at a HFT store or online.
  • Accessible – It doesn’t require any programming or setup and is ready to use out of the box.
  • Basic – It’s very easy to use and takes standard size alkaline batteries.
  • Garrett Ace 250Functional – With the exception of offering ground balancing, it’s almost a direct analog equivalent to the digital Treasure Ace 250 from Garrett, which is the machine I really learned on and still own and love. I am biased as a user, but I do believe there’s a reason the 250 is the world’s best-selling metal detector (and no, I am not being paid by Garrett or anyone else to say so).

I will qualify that last statement with the caveat that the HFT machine is not as sturdy or well-built as the Ace 250, and it doesn’t offer as much depth sensitivity. But for the loss of about 2 inches of depth and maybe needing to reinforce the flimsier shaft with a layer or two of duct tape (optional — I’ve never had to do this, but then I’m not hard on my machines), you’re saving about $175-200. I think this makes it an ideal machine for someone just dipping their toes in the water to decide whether they want to take the full plunge into metal detecting.