Helmet-Mounted Speakers, Bluetooth Connection, And More - High-Speed Discourse
The Buyer's Guide To Motorcycle Communication Systems For The 21st Century
October 01, 2007
By Evan Kay
Photography by Adam Campbell
Cell phones, CD players, GPS navigation systems, radar detectors: It seems not that long ago that you had to leave most of these gadgets at home when you went riding. Thankfully, those days are over; modern motorcycle communication systems now allow you to connect myriad devices for on-bike operation, as well as talk with passengers (via intercom) or with other riders (via two-way radio). We rounded up a dozen examples of high-tech systems-wired, wireless and even Bluetooth-from 12 manufacturers for a closer look at the state of the communicator market.
We've grouped the systems into three categories: helmet-mounted, removable and installed. Helmet-mounted systems are self-explanatory: The main unit mounts to the rider's helmet, along with speakers and a microphone (the headset). These systems are detachable from the helmet (though the headset remains in place with some examples). Removable systems utilize a main unit attached to the headset by wire and are carried in a pocket, tank bag or on a belt. Finally, the installed systems are hardwired to the motorcycle's power system, directly to the battery or tapped into existing power and ground wires, with headsets connected by wire to the main unit.
All the systems utilize helmet-mounted speakers and a microphone (except one), but the details are in the installation. Some speakers attach with Velcro and are easily removed, while others require more extensive installation, including the use of a few tools and disassembly of the inner helmet padding. Most of the microphones attach with a piece of Velcro, while others are mounted on a boom.
Many of the units share similar features as well. An intercom is part of every system in this guide. It allows the rider and passenger to speak with each other at all times.
Another common function is bike-to-bike communication between two or more riders via a two-way radio (FRS/GMRS or Citizens' Band) or Bluetooth connection. Some systems have this built in, while others allow the user to add a radio (usually FRS/GMRS).
The hot feature these days seems to be the use of a voice-operated cellular telephone with the system. This can be via a Bluetooth connection (built-in or by add-on transceiver) or a simple wire connection. [Although you can make and receive calls while riding, the manufacturers and the staff of Cruiser strongly advise against it. Talking on a cell phone while driving (and by extension, riding) "is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit," according to a 1997 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.]
Portable music is also big news, thanks especially to tiny MP3 players that can hold hours of music for hands-free playback. These devices usually connect by wire to the main unit, although it's possible to connect with an optional Bluetooth transceiver to some Bluetooth systems. Some systems also allow for the connection of GPS voice-navigation systems and radar detectors.
As for chatting, all the intercoms are full-duplex, allowing for normal back-and-forth conversation. On the other hand, the bike-to-bike communicators are almost all of the "simplex" variety, where only one person can speak at a time. Most systems feature VOX (Voice Operated eXchange) so that the intercom is silent unless someone is speaking. Many systems also include a PTT (Push-To-Talk) button, usually for bike-to-bike communication, but sometimes for the intercom, too. This prevents the microphone from transmitting until someone presses the PTT button.
Other popular features include automatic noise suppression for the microphone; automatic volume, to increase and decrease speaker volume as ambient noise increases or decreases; and automatic suppression of music audio whenever a signal from an attached cell phone, GPS system or radar detector comes in.
Helmet-Mounted SystemsBackChat-Vixen IntercomsBackChat!$100 (base unit)This unique system is an air-driven intercom, using the same technology as the old "bridge to engine room" system previously used on ships. The device isn't electric powered, relying on a system of tubes to transmit sound waves without interference from external noise sources. It's semi-DIY, but once you figure out how everything fits, the system is extremely easy to install, requiring only a few pieces of Velcro to attach to the rider's and passenger's helmets. The ear pieces are soft silicone earplugs that also provide noise attenuation. The upsides are that the BackChat is extremely lightweight, provides true duplex sound and is always "on"-simply speak when you want to. BackChat-Vixen claims clear sound at 80-90 mph with a full touring motorcycle, and there are separate add-on units available (one for an audio player or GPS, another for a cell phone or two-way radio).Dimensions: 2.5"W x 1.25"H x 0.75"Dwww.backchat-vixen.com; (305) 477-2333
BlueAnt WirelessInterPhone$189 (per unit)BlueAnt Wireless manufactures a variety of Bluetooth cell phone products, including the InterPhone. It's a tiny system, with the main unit weighing a mere 1.2 ounces, and includes a helmet mount and headset, which consists of a microphone and single speaker. The instructions are easy to follow, and installation takes only a few minutes. Operation is simplicity itself, with one multifunction button and volume up and down buttons. The system is sold by the unit; two will be needed for intercom or bike-to-bike use. The intercom is full-duplex, and there's auto volume to adjust for wind, road and bike noise, as well as anti-noise/wind circuitry for the mic. The range for the bike-to-bike use is 490 feet, with 33 feet being the range to a Bluetooth-paired cell phone. The InterPhone provides 700 hours of standby time or five hours of intercom talk or 10 hours of cell phone talk.Dimensions: 3.5"W x 1.75"H x 1"Dwww.myblueant.com; (866) 891-3032 (tech support)
Cardo Systems, Inc.Scala Rider...
Cardo Systems, Inc.Scala Rider TeamSet $280The Scala Rider TeamSet is primarily intended for Bluetooth intercom and cell phone use. The two provided units in the TeamSet are only 1.2 ounces each, are pre-paired at the factory and are immediately ready for intercom use. In addition to Bluetooth cell phones, seven other Bluetooth devices can be paired to the TeamSet. Priority automatically goes to the last device used. There is a noise-cancelling microphone and auto volume to adjust for bike, road and wind noise. Both intercom and cell phone use is VOX operated, and the cell phone overrides the intercom. The system also allows three-way calling between the rider, passenger and phone caller. Though two speakers are provided, the system is monophonic. Instructions are easy to follow, and installation is quick. The supplied charger juices both units in three hours, providing approximately one week of standby time or seven hours of talk time.Dimensions: 3.25"W x 1.75"H x 0.75"Dwww.cardowireless.com; (800) 488-0363
ChatterBox! GMRS X1 Bluetooth...
ChatterBox! GMRS X1 Bluetooth $400 (base unit, $60 for additional headset)The GMRS X1 Bluetooth follows the form of generations of ChatterBox! communicators but now includes Bluetooth capability. The helmet-mounted unit has a built-in full-duplex intercom and FRS/GMRS two-way radio, with an up-to-5-mile range. Combined with the capability to pair with two Bluetooth devices (e.g., a cell phone and a GPS), the GMRS X1 Bluetooth seems fairly versatile. There are also input jacks for an audio source, cell phone/radar detector/GPS and an additional external PTT switch. Intercom and bike-to-bike communication can be operated by either a VOX or PTT switch. The unit comes as a "solo unit," so a second headset or second unit (for wireless communication) is needed for intercom use. The instructions explain how features are operated but not necessarily what those functions do. A full charge takes 14 hours, providing 20 hours of standby time or eight hours of talk time.Dimensions: 5.25"W x 2.5"H x 1.5"D (plus antenna)www.chatterboxusa.com; (888) 452-2269
Removable SystemsFire Fox...
Removable SystemsFire Fox Route 66 Intercom System$180The Fire Fox Route 66 Intercom System is one of the simplest to use, as well as being a flyweight (less than 2 ounces, without batteries). There are no wires pre-attached to the main unit, just jacks for the rider and passenger headsets and a music source. An adapter is available to add a two-way radio for bike-to-bike communication, and a belt/pocket clip is included, but nothing in the system is bike- or helmet-mounted. The speakers are small earphones with soft earpieces that also help attenuate noise, but the microphone is what sets this system apart from the rest: It's a throat mic. This is the same technology used by law enforcement, the military and, apparently, avid paintball players. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the mic, but it doesn't pick up road, wind or bike noise, and it requires only a whisper to operate.Dimensions: 2.25"W x 2.5"H x 0.75"Dwww.firefoxtechnologies.com; (866) 890-0371
MotoCommRiderLink ST-1 $190...
MotoCommRiderLink ST-1 $190 If you're looking for a do-everything system that comes with all headsets, cables and connectors included, then the RiderLink ST-1 may be the one. The main unit is light, slightly bigger than a deck of cards, runs on two AA batteries and can be carried in a pocket or tankbag or strapped to a convenient spot on the motorcycle. The modular headsets are easy to mount to helmets and come with both full-face and open-face helmet mics. Considering the number of possible device connections, it's a good thing there's a clearly written instruction manual included. In addition to the built-in intercom and FM radio (unique to this guide), the user can hook up a music source, two-way radio, radar detector (or GPS) and a cell phone. It's not simply that the jacks are on the unit, but cables and adapters for all of those devices are included as well. There's even a padded storage case!Dimensions: 2.75"W x 4"H x 1"Dwww.rflimited.com; (877) 624-6869
Nady MRC-11X $129 (base unit,...
Nady MRC-11X $129 (base unit, $40 for extra headset)The MRC-11X is basically a GMRS radio with extra motorcycle-friendly features. The main unit looks, works and feels just like a small walkie-talkie and runs on four AAA batteries. It still packs a wallop, with an up-to-7-mile range claimed, and there's a removable belt clip included. It can be stashed in a pocket or tank bag, or used off the bike without the headset. In addition to the GMRS two-way radio, there's a built-in full-duplex intercom and a PTT switch on the unit, plus a separate PTT switch that can be handlebar-mounted. The electronics feature noise-cancelling and wind-blocking headsets, Nady Super VOX (which prevents mics from activating while receiving and eliminates side-tone-your own voice through the speakers-when receiving) and auto-squelch for the GMRS radio. The few nits to pick are a too-small backlit LCD and instructions that don't mention headset installation.Dimensions: 2.5"W x 4"H x 1"D (plus antenna)www.nady.com; (510) 652-2411
Removable SystemsTork HeadsetsRidemate...
Removable SystemsTork HeadsetsRidemate $300The Ridemate by Tork can be powered by either a 9-volt battery or by quick-detaching electrical connectors with alligator clips, so no soldering, tapping or crimping is required. The aluminum case is heavy, but connectors and jacks are well marked, and the system features huge volume buttons to control audio sources, with a separate volume knob for the intercom (built-in full-duplex). Tork states that the unit has a "special amplifier to enhance sound quality under the most extreme motorcycle and helmet conditions." Music volume decreases 50 percent whenever the intercom, cell phone or two-way radio is used. Multiple jacks allow you to add a cell phone, two-way radio and a music source, and a cable is included to make those connections with the main unit. The instructions are good, but there's no clarification for the headset mounting, other than "stick on"-it'd be nice to know where the sticking should be done.Dimensions: 5"W x 2.5"H x 1.5"Dwww.torkworld.com; (877) 801-6984
12-Volt Installed SystemsAutocomSuper...
12-Volt Installed SystemsAutocomSuper Pro AVi $500 (base unit + $85 for second headset)With the Autocom Super Pro AVi, you can take it with you. Once you've wired the unit to your bike's 12-volt system and plugged in the headsets, you can go wild and simultaneously connect two cell phones, two music sources, GPS or radar, a PTT switch and even a third headset! Both the rider and passenger can use the cell phone and bike-to-bike radio, and hear the GPS and radar detector. Unique to the Autocom is a tiny background noise sensor that mounts on the rider's helmet and provides "true noise cancelling" to prevent the microphone from picking up ambient noise. The system also offers side-tone-so you speak at an appropriate volume rather than whispering or shouting. The instructions are excellent, and Autocom goes so far as to guarantee clear intercom communication at up to 180 mph.Dimensions: 4.5"W x 2.75"H x 1"Dwww.autocomamerica.com; (888) 851-4327
BaehrBlackLine Series Active$490One...
BaehrBlackLine Series Active$490One of the higher-end systems here, the new card-size Baehr BlackLine Series Active packs a big punch. Within the water-tight case, the circuitry provides for the addition of an audio source plus your choice of a two-way radio, cell phone, GPS or radar detector. When a device connected to the Priority Universal Interface sends a signal to the unit, any music or intercom use is suppressed for the incoming call or message from the cell phone, GPS, radar detector or two-way radio. The unit also has VOX, Auto VOX wind/noise suppression, and adjustments for the Auto VOX and speech volume for both the rider and passenger. Though wired to the motorcycle's 12-volt system, the unit can be quickly detached for use on another motorcycle. The instructions are excellent, but the high-quality headset requires the most intensive installation of the group. Authorized Baehr dealers can install it for a fee (starting at around $80).Dimensions: 2.75"W x 2"H x 0.75"Dwww.baehrusa.com; (866) 872-2347
StarCom1StarCom1 Advance$342 (KIT B) The StarCom1 Advance offers some of the nicest packaging here, consisting of a small user-friendly aluminum case. Though wired into the motorcycle's electrical system, the system's included electrical connectors feature a quick-disconnect so you can use the unit on another bike. Features abound, including automatic mic sensitivity and volume, which adjusts the mic and speaker volumes up when talking and down when quiet, plus adjusting for wind, speed and bike noise, with independent mic volume adjustments. The music auto-mutes when someone is talking, whether on the built-in full-duplex intercom or add-on two-way radio, or a cell phone. You can use an optional PTT switch, which will also mute a connected radio, making your cell phone conversation private. There are also inputs for a cell phone, two-way radio, music and GPS or radar detector. The instructions are good but would benefit from more illustrations.Dimensions: 3"W x 2"H x 1"Dwww.starcom1.com; +44(0)1480 399499