Bike-To-Bike Communication: Motorcycle CB Radio and More

CB Radio Versus GMRS/FRS or Bluetooth

In the previous issue we began our look at Bike-To-Bike (BTB) communications with a technology primer. We examined the principal technologies available, how they work, and some of the pros, cons, and implications of each option. Now, we'll look at some representative products and provide a brief review of each class. We'll also examine where the sound meets the ear, with the speaker and microphone in your helmet. We'll finish it all off with an Editor's rating of the options to help sort it all out.

Motorcycle CB Radio

As we said in Part I, CBs’ history in the market, installed base, and simplicity are the reasons they continue to sell as the preferred BTB communication option from manufacturers. If you have a touring model or a bagger from one of the major manufacturers, chances are it has been designed to accept a CB. You can either order it pre-installed on your new bike from the factory (in the case of BMW, Harley, Honda and Kawasaki) or have it added later as an accessory. Since this type of installation is unique for each bike and is of a proprietary design, you’ll pay more, but the existing bike controls and/or integrated AM/FM radio will likely work in an well-behaved manner with the CB. Since the CB unit is usually mounted deep in the bowels of the bike, and often requires the addition of electrical filters, headphone jacks and other such electrical system refinements, installation is usually best left to the pros at your local dealer.

For an idea of cost, we made a call to the local Harley dealer, and got a quote of $794.37 for the parts to mount a CB (labor additional) on a touring bike. An OEM CB isn’t the cheapest solution out there, but once it’s installed, you’ll have a professional BTB radio well integrated into your bike.

If your ride was never designed to accept an OEM CB unit (as is the case with many cruisers) you’ll have to go with an aftermarket supplier. But don’t despair; these solutions perform just as well. J&M; Audio makes a nice CB unit that mounts on the left handlebar, allowing use of a push-to-talk trigger and other controls while riding—just like the OEM setups. All the electronics are housed in the handlebar-mounted control unit so there’s nothing to squirrel away in the caverns of your bike. Model JMCB-2003B-DU provides a 40-channel CB radio, NOAA weather band radio, rider/passenger intercom and stereo music amplification from any portable music device, all integrated into a compact unit.

Installation is a little more complex than the usual accessory add-on, but certainly not beyond the scope of a DIY weekend project if you’ve installed other electrical accessories on your bike. At $399.99 MSRP, you’ll save substantial cash over the OEM option to boot.

GMRS/FRS

If you’ve decided the more modern technology of GMRS/FRS is preferable, and you’re not interested in the huge installed base that CB offers, then you have several options available.

The simplest, cheapest and easiest method is to get hold of a couple of hand-held GMRS radios and a motorcycle headset accessory. In fact, this is the least expensive solution across the board. For about a $65 street price, you can pick up the Midland GXT1000VP4 value pack, which includes two GMRS/FRS radios, rechargeable battery packs, drop-in charger, and both AC and DC adapters. Spend another $35 to add the AVP-H2 headset for motorcycles, which provides speakers and a microphone to mount in your helmet, as well as a push-to-talk (PTT) button that attaches to your handlebar with a hook & loop strap. The GXT1000 radios provide all the GMRS/FRS channels along with 285 privacy codes unique to GMRS/FRS that give you over 6000 virtual channel options to help avoid unwanted conversations. It’s a good way to isolate just your riding group from all the other road chatter out there. For under $70 for each rider, you are riding with a full GMRS/FRS solution and you’ve got a pair of pretty decent hand-held radios to use off the bike too. The downside is you have to haul along desktop chargers, and since the radio is in your tank bag or pocket, you won’t be doing any channel changing on the fly. Everything is also hooked up with wires between the radio, your headset and the PTT button, but hey, it’s only $70 and it works well.

Still within the GMRS/FRS category but a step up in motorcycle specificity would be an all-in-one helmet-mounted modular product. The Chatterbox X1Slim combines GMRS/FRS communications along with a Rider to Passenger intercom, Bluetooth connectivity to devices like cell phones and portable audio players, and an FM radio. You mount the unit on the side of your helmet and connect everything either wirelessly or directly to the device. The X1Slim comes with a helmet headset and wired handlebar mounted PTT button. If you decide to use it, the PTT button is the only thing not integrated into the device on your helmet. To cut that last wire, Chatterbox even offers a wireless PTT button as an optional accessory. The advantages of this solution include a design specific to motorcyclists, a compact unit that’s mounted out of the way, and the easy installation. The downside is having to charge the unit after a day’s use, which can take about 5 hours, and the lack of visual feedback while riding (to show the channel and other selections) as the unit is placed on the side of your head. You’ll change channels and adjust volume by pushing buttons blindly, but you soon learn by feel. The Chatterbox X1Slim carries a $349.95 MSRP.

GMRS/FRS is a more advanced technology than CB and due to power output, frequency, modulation techniques and other such details, it tends to have a slightly greater range. Expect about 1–3 miles with GRMS/FRS versus CB’s 1–2 miles. However, between CB and GMRS/FRS, elements like environmental conditions, electrical interference and antenna height will have far more impact on the range than the underlying technology. Also, remember that GMRS is the only technology here that requires a purchased license from the FCC.

Bluetooth

The industrious Swedes, who have given us dynamite, the adjustable spanner wrench and the PC mouse, have most recently given us Bluetooth. As we pointed out in Part I, Bluetooth was originally meant for short distance wire and cable replacement. Several vendors, such as J&M; Audio and Chatterbox, also build Bluetooth devices primarily for short range cable replacement. Bluetooth is also often integrated with other BTB communication technology to facilitate communication to devices like GPS units, digital audio players and phones. However, in this dedicated Bluetooth section, we’re talking about products that use Bluetooth technology primarily for longer range two-way radio communication in place of a GMRS/FRS or CB radio. Sena Technologies and Cardo Systems are just two of the manufacturers that have augmented the basic Bluetooth capabilities to allow for longer range BTB communications, and they also offer high quality products in this class. Both are helmet-mounted units, and both can link up with a multitude of other devices, such as your GPS for voice navigation, audio players for music, or a passenger’s unit for intercom capability. Both units claim 12–13 hours of usage between charges and take 2–3 hours to fully recharge.

Bluetooth, being a state-of-the-art digital technology with advanced digital processing, offers the clearest and cleanest signal of all the solutions here. It is also full duplex, which means you can talk and hear at the same time just like a real conversation, unlike other technologies where you either are talking or listening, but not both. These are also among the smallest units in our review, thanks to the wonders of modern digital technology. For replacing wires and compatibility with all your electronic gadgets, Bluetooth units can’t be beat. They are also terrific for communication between a rider and passenger. Some of the downsides of Bluetooth come out when you push beyond these functions. Since it was never intended as a long-range radio technology, Bluetooth has the most limited range of the bunch, with a working span of about ½–1 mile. Also, once you go beyond two riders, joining 3 or more into your communication group can be tricky. Unlike the other technologies which operate like an unlimited party line with anyone joining in or dropping off independently, Bluetooth doesn’t play like this. For example, with three riders (A, B & C) you actually are having riders A & C communicate through rider B. So if you pull up to a stop light and Rider B makes it through but the other two don’t, then riders A & C will just sit there and stare at one another in stark silence as rider B heads off out of range.

Both the Cardo and Sena units can be configured for two-way use (rider to rider or rider to passenger), three-way (three separate riders), or four-way (two riders and two passengers). Cardo’s new G9 models also offer a “One+8” Intercom that offers voice recognition-activated connectivity to as many as eight additional riders; just say the name of your “buddy,” and you’re linked with that rider. You can configure this off-line with the G9 unit connected to a PC, and download the software to the unit. We haven’t tested this capability in the new Cardo units yet so can’t comment on how it works, but with all Bluetooth products you definitely will be jumping through more technology hoops to communicate with more than one other rider. It’s the price you pay for having a sophisticated digital technology running a complex network protocol, but under the right conditions, all this will be invisible and your communications will be clear. The Sena SMH10 Bluetooth headset retails for $219 and the Cardo Systems G9 goes for $289.95. Both are also available in a dual pack for $399 and $499.95, respectively.

Summing it all up

So which is the best tool, a hammer or screwdriver? Depends on what you are trying to do. It’s the same for BTB communications. There are lots of good options out there, and the first step is to think through your particular needs: How many in your riding group? Is connection to cell phones important? Do you want an AM/FM radio? Do you need intercom capability with a passenger? Do you want the equipment hard-mounted on the bike or do you want to take it on any ride your helmet goes? Are you likely to encounter larger groups at rallies with whom you will want to communicate? Each of the product classes we’ve discussed brings its own unique strengths and weaknesses to these requirements.

If you value connection to the largest installed base, want easy operation that allows anyone to join and want the whole system as integrated as possible—and don’t mind paying a premium—then CB is probably the way to go.

If you value technical performance, want newer technology and the ability to implement privacy codes to your conversations, and/or prefer a helmet-mounted option, then FRS/GMRS is best—but it won’t be built into your bike and you’ll find less of these implementations on random people you encounter on the road.

If you mainly want to communicate with just one other rider and you value connecting other gear like a GPS or cell phone, or are looking for rider-to-passenger intercom capability then Bluetooth may be the way. Bluetooth, being the most sophisticated implementation with its digital radio and software protocols, will also provide the cleanest communication, albeit over a shorter range.

A final note: If you've decided to install a BTB communication system, be sure to check local regulations. Almost all two-way radios made for use in the United States are generally not meant to be used outside North America. Also, certain states may not allow the use of earpieces or headsets while operating a vehicle. If you are unsure, search the American Motorcyclists Association database of motorcycle laws. CR

A Word to the OEMs

Motorcycle communications seem to be sorely lagging behind automotive and other consumer technologies. After all, the only BTB communication you can order standard from most motorcycle manufacturers is CB, a technology harkening back to the 1950s. So why not make a stronger effort to bring us into the 21st century? We’d suggest manufacturers offer newer models with, or pre-wired for, GMRS radios with a Bluetooth interface. To cover all the bases, they could also offer combo GMRS/CB/NOAA weather and AM/FM radios in one unit that would allow communication to legacy installations of CB but also incorporate more robust GMRS.

We’d also like to see more helmet manufacturers offer built-in high quality headsets that connect to bikes via Bluetooth (Dainese, Nolan and Schuberth already offer these as integrated systems or as an option). The best-in-class BTB radio technology with quality headsets could then connect to all electronics wirelessly via a Personal Area Network, thus using Bluetooth for its intended purpose. Sure this adds some cost, but the relative cost is small given the benefits of bringing the whole platform up to the latest technology.

Check Yourself

The wonders of electronics have allowed us to bring our office and living room along on the ride, but just because you think you can do five things at once doesn’t mean you should. Motorcycling requires attention; much more so than driving a car. Think twice before you begin trying to pilot your ride while simultaneously choosing tunes on the audio player, listening to turn-by-turn voice navigation, and trying to dial out on the cell phone. Some studies have proven that cell phone users (even hands-free) piloting a vehicle are over 5 times more likely to get in an accident than undistracted drivers. Other studies have shown the risk of distracted driving is about the same as for drivers with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level. If you say you wouldn’t ride drunk, think twice about multiplexing your riding with all your electronic gadgets. Read the research for yourself:

Reference

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., and Crouch, D. L. “A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver”, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 2006 (Summer), 381-391;

Resources

Cardo Systems
www.cardosystems.com

**Collett **
www.collett.mb.ca

Dainese Airstream D-Nect
www.dainese.com

Interphone USA
www.Interphoneusa.com

J&M; Audio Products
www.jmcorp.com

Midland Radios
www.midlandradio.com

Schuberth SRC Bluetooth
www.schuberthnorthamerica.com

Helmet and J&M; Headset Test

So that we could better run a headset through its paces (and evaluate a professional helmet install), we had J&M Audio install one of their new Elite 629 Series Helmet Headsets into a new Arai RX-Q helmet. We ran the combo through a full road test, checking fit, function and performance with two-way communication to other riders via a connected CB as well as listening to music along the way. In terms of fit, the Arai RX-Q provided an outstanding cabinet for the headset. The RX-Q, with its Intermediate Oval interior shape, fit me well, providing a solid, yet plush grip all around my head. Arai offers three different helmet shapes so you can find the one that best fits your noggin. The RX-Q also provided good isolation from wind and road noise, thus setting a solid starting point for headset performance. The professional install of the headset by J&M was just that: professional. You can’t even make out the speakers, as they are recessed inside the helmet, with the comfort liner fabric and padding carefully put back in place. The only evidence of a headset is the cord exiting out the side and the button mic mounted in the chin bar. We tested the helmet before and after the headset install, and fit is identical; you give up no comfort or convenience. As to performance, the Elite 629 headset did an excellent job of reproducing audio from the CB communications as well as delivering music with quality that exceeds what you would get from most audio player headphones. Above about 50 MPH, competition from road and machine noise starts to intrude on any truly high fidelity experience, but this is the case with all headset/helmet combos. The Elite 629 uses J&M’s latest version of their high-output AeroMike V which does an excellent job of blocking wind and other external noise while still transmitting a natural human voice. A high-quality headset mounted in a good, comfortable helmet is the starting point for a pleasant BTB communication experience, and the J&M Elite 629 Helmet Headset is one of the best. Available from J&M Audio for $229.99. —TH