If you’re trying to trace a wire, there are several different tools you could use. However, a tone generator and probe are an essential part of any wiring technician’s kit. For instance, suppose you come across a “mystery” outlet during a remodel. You trace the wire back to a junction box where it gets lost in a rat’s nest of old wires. If you’re going to find the wire that goes to the outlet, you’ll need to perform a continuity test. A tone generator does this by sending an audio tone down the wire from one end. When a probe touches the other end of the wire, the tone sounds through a speaker. This lets you know when you’ve found the correct cable.
Tone generators aren’t just used for electrical wiring. As a matter of fact, they’re primarily used for low-voltage applications like phone and network cable. It’s tough to use a normal continuity tester on these types of wires, because the voltage is so low. A tone generator uses a low-voltage audio signal, so you can trace virtually any wire. But not all tone generators and probes are equally well-engineered. Choose the wrong model, and you could end up with a weak, unreliable signal. To help out, we’re going to review the three best tone generator and probe wire tracer kits available today.
We’ll start by reviewing the Tempo Communications 701K-G Tone Generator and Probe Kit. This is a mid-priced kit, but a complete one, with a multi-functional generator and a carrying case. Next, we’ll look at the Fluke Networks IntelliTone Pro 200 Toner and Probe Kit. This is a high-performance kit for testing long runs of network wire. Last but not least, we’ll examine the Extech TG20 Wire Tracer and Tone Generator. This is a basic tone generator designed for everyday use around the house. Which one is the best for your needs? To find out, we need to dig deeper. Let’s see what we discover!
Tone Generator and Probe Features to Look For
Before we get into our reviews, let’s take a second to look at different tone generator features. We’ve already discussed the basics of how they work. However, there are a number of “extra” features that can go a long way to improving your experience. For one thing, an LED indicator is a must on any loud jobsite. Even if you can’t hear an audible tone, you’ll still be able to see. LED indicators will also often let you know the strength of the signal. For the tone itself, look for multiple tones, since this can allow you to identify multiple cables. Many tone generators will also change tone if there’s a short.
In terms of physical construction, a high-quality speaker and a headphone jack are both good bonuses. Look for high-quality alligator clips with an angled, bed-of-nails design. These backward-pointing teeth allow for a secure grip that won’t let go while you’re probing the other end. You also want to look at ergonomics and storage. Is the grip comfortable? Are the clip handles rubberized? Do the leads look like they’re going to snag every time you take them out of the case? All of these are factors you’re going to have to consider.
Tempo Communications 701K-G Tone Generator and Probe Kit
Tempo Communications is a well-regarded manufacturer of testing equipment. In the past, we’ve reviewed their underground cable locator, and we liked what we saw. When we saw that they also manufactured tone generators, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on one.
The 701K-G Tone Generator and Probe Kit includes everything you need to trace electrical or phone lines. The generator unit is smaller than a credit card, albeit a good ¾ of an inch thick. On top, you’ll find the wires and the control switch required for operation. The switch has a three-position design. When it’s set to the left, it emits a continuous tone for wire tracing. When it’s set to the right, it emits a different tone for short detection. The middle position is the off position.
Three different wires protrude from the top of the unit. The red and black wires connect to a pair of alligator clips that are housed in rubber for comfort and safety. These are used for checking electrical wires. The third, grey cable connects to a standard RJ1145 phone plug. If you need to test the male end of a phone cable, you can use the included in-line coupler.
The probe has a large, powerful speaker on the back that’s very easy to hear. It will produce two different tones, depending on whether there’s a short or not. Moreover, there’s an LED indicator that gets brighter the less resistance there is. The brighter the light, the shorter the cable run — at least in theory. The LED allows you to work in a loud environment and still know if your wire is connected. If you still need to hear a tone to detect shorts, you can always use some headphones. There’s a 3.5mm jack built into the probe.
The 701K-G probe includes three different tips. The medium and large tips are plastic, but have built-in signal amplifiers. This allows you to trace a wire without making any direct metallic contact. If you do need a metal tip, there’s still one included in the kit. About the only thing Tempo Communications doesn’t include is a set of batteries. That said, the probe and generator both use 9-volt batteries, which are easy enough to buy on your own.
Along with everything else, you get a nylon carrying pouch. The pouch has a simple, belt-loop design, so it’s easy to carry on a daily basis. It also has a two-chambered design, so the generator and probe are stored separately. This makes everything neat and simple to manage.
Fluke Networks IntelliTone Pro 200 Toner and Probe Kit
Fluke Networks is a manufacturer of network installation and maintenance hardware. They’re particularly well-known for their network cable testers, which are among the best in the business. Their IntelliTone Pro 200 Toner and Probe Kit has a similar function, but uses a simple audio tone.
Unlike the Tempo Communications kit, the IntelliTone isn’t designed for power cables. This is a dedicated network cable tester for Ethernet and phone. The generator unit is bright yellow, and has a tapered, ergonomic design along with a wrist tether. The top has a simple female connector where you can plug in an Ethernet cable. If you need to test a female connection, just use a patch cable to plug the IntelliTone in. Patch cables are included in the kit, both for network and phone lines. There’s also a coax adapter for testing cable lines.
The IntelliTone can generate two types of signals. First, it can generate a standard analog tone. This is useful for testing dead wires, where you don’t have to worry about interference. However, active Ethernet networks produce enough interference to distort an analog signal. To that end, the IntelliTone can also produce an encoded digital signal. This signal will not degrade quickly on an active network, so you can test connections without disconnecting everything. This capability comes at a steep cost, but you’re paying for a professional-grade tool.
The probe allows you to choose between a simple continuity test and a signal strength test. The signal strength is measured by an LED meter, with eight different reading levels. This isn’t a scientific network speed test. However, it gives you a general idea of whether or not a given cable is any good. The signal strength meter can also help you isolate an individual wire in a larger bundle. The probe is also capable of detecting opens, shorts, and reversed pairs. So if there is something wrong with your cable, you can easily diagnose the problem.
Both the IntelliTone probe and the tone generator run on standard 9-volt batteries. A pair are included in the kit, and should last for at least three months of operation, even with heavy use. For lighter use, your batteries will last for a year or more. In addition, there’s a hard carrying case available. It’s very good quality, resists bumps and drops, and has convenient internal storage pockets. That said, it’s sold separately; the base kit doesn’t include one.
Extech TG20 Wire Tracer and Tone Generator
Extech produces a wide variety of electrical tools, from commercial-grade to DIY. They’re particularly well-known for their continuity testers and other diagnostic equipment. By its very nature, the TG20 Wire Tracer and Tone Generator falls into this category. So how well does it stack up to Extech’s other offerings?
The TG20 Wire Tracer and Tone Generator is an affordable testing tool that’s made primarily for homeowners. The tone generator unit is small and simple, with three short leads on the top. The first two are alligator clips, with a rubberized protective housing. The third is a standard RJ11 phone plug for checking phone jacks. With these tools, you can check connectivity, identify pairs, and check telephone line polarity.
On the front of the generator, you’ll find a pair of LEDs that keep you posted on its status. The top light will illuminate when a tone is being emitted. The bottom will illuminate when you’re performing basic continuity testing. This allows for monitoring at both the probe and generator ends of the wire. Moreover, the continuity light will get dimmer the more resistance there is. The brighter it is, the better the condition of your wire. It turns off completely at 10,000 ohms, which means there’s no useful connection.
On the top of the probe, there’s a sensitivity adjustment dial that’s easy to use. Turn it up to detect a weak signal, or turn it down to filter out interference. Secondary LEDs indicate which line is being traced: the Tip/Ring or Clear/Busy line. This makes it easy to repair broken phone connections. The TG20 probe and generator both use 9-volt batteries, which are included in the kit. On the other hand, there’s no carrying case, but this is less of an issue for a home tester. It’s not designed for jobsites to begin with.
So, where does this leave us? Let’s go over what we’ve learned, and what makes each of these kits worth buying. We started out with the Tempo 701K-G. This is the most versatile option, and is suitable for both professional and DIY use. It’s capable of testing both electrical and phone lines, so it will perform the bulk of most residential jobs. Not only that, but it’s well designed. The rubberized clip covers, built-in audio jack, and LED indicator all offer a lot of value. It even allows you to detect shorts and other wiring problems. You won’t find all these features on your average cheap consumer model.
The Fluke IntelliTone Pro 200 is a bit of a different animal. It’s a dedicated network probe for Ethernet, phone, and cable. This requires some unique features, such as a digital signal that increases the price. But if you need to diagnose networking issues, you’re getting everything you need. You can test signal strength, look for shorts, and even test for reversed pairs. The non-metallic probe tip is safe and easy to use, and the speaker tone is nice and loud. If you’re a networking professional, the IntelliTone is money well spent.
Last, we reviewed the Extech TG20. This is a more basic, slimmed-down tone generator and probe that’s made for home use. You can perform connectivity tests, as well as diagnose basic phone wiring issues. There’s not much else to it, and it doesn’t have the features you’d expect from a professional-grade tester. But it’s an affordable solution if you’re only going to use your tone generator once in a blue moon.