This tip was originally written for Bikeminds.com by Cat MacLeod

Okay helmet to helmet communication is really cool and very useful. It keeps you and your passenger or wingman connected as you enjoy the road. You ride safer, there’s less confusion and there’s a great feeling of comradery as you share the experience while your helmets are on.

What you’ll love.

  1. “Gravel on the right”
  2. “I’ll need fuel in the next 40 miles”
  3. “Wooohooo! Look to your left!”
  4. “I’m gonna hit this curvy section hard, you ride your own pace, I’ll wait for you at the top”
  5. “Hey could you soften the rear suspension honey?”
  6. “Easy here, the cops like to set up speed traps just ahead”
  7. “Hey I don’t see Rob and Molly anymore pull over.”
  8. “So I got the new album and listened too it all weekend while riding.”
  9. GPS DIRECTIONS – “On the next round about take the 3rd exit”
  10. “This is Red 5 I’m going in”

What you’ll hate.

  1. “Why won’t this thing pair?”
  2. “What?” “I can’t hear you.”
  3. “Reposition your mic, all I hear is wind noise”
  4. “Voice command confirmed, Radio On” – at full volume static when all you did was cough
  5. “Quit getting out of range man I can’t hear you.”
  6. “Hold on we’ve got to pair these things again.”
  7. “Honey could you stop singing in your helmet… I can hear you”
  8. “Bob? Bob? Can you hear me?” – As you realize the unit has crashed again and you have to try to restart it with one hand…while riding a twisty road.
  9. “Why won’t this F#&KIN@ thing stay paired?”
  10. “The audio is so bad I can’t tell what song my iPhone is playing through this thing”

The problem is once you use it a few times and it works you are hooked. How long can you deal with the hassles of com gear that doesn’t work properly? Gesturing frantically trying to get people to pull over to repair bluetooth units. Dealing with voice activated mics (VOX) that always come on at the wrong times or not when you want them to.  Bad user interfaces that turn on features you don’t want, flooding your ears with static at just the wrong time. Ranges that work for passengers and rider together but quickly fail on curvy roads past 100 meters.  Hooking units up to your computer desperately hoping a firmware update will keep the unit from crashing twice a day on your next ride.

Parts that make or break the whole

New models come and go but the basics of good helmet communication remain the same. Vocal communication is talking and listening but you’d be surprised how some companies go cheap on these components. When reading reviews and examining units in person you should focus on a few things. You want to have GOOD speakers. An option to unplug the existing speakers and put in accessory speakers is a smart thing to look for.  Stick in some serious earplugs and test the speakers. Are they REALLY LOUD but also CLEAR? Same goes for a microphone and it’s wind/noise canceling ability. One of the issues with bluetooth com units is that the channel is commonly left open. So, if you’ve got a poor noise canceling mic you could end up listening to someone elses wind noise the whole time or vice versa. Don’t be dazzled by an array of features you probably won’t use. The more things a helmet com unit can do, the harder it is to design easy to use controls.  Ease of use is better than an additional feature you probably won’t use. Also the more features a unit has the greater the possibility that the software isn’t up to the job and will crash the unit.  The most basic test. How easy is it for you to turn the volume up and down and power cycle the unit while wearing gloves? Do this with your eyes closed, because you won’t be able to see the unit when it’s on the side of your helmet or stuck to your bars.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth as a protocol was designed in the late 80s by Ericsson to be used for cell phone wireless headsets.  While the Bluetooth protocol was never designed to work over 100 meters the range has been boosted by increasing the power. Max range of these units is about 1.5 miles in good conditions. Since the units do an analog to digital to analog conversion there’s always a tiny lag between when you speak and what your buddy hears. You are, in a sense, pairing two cell phone headsets together. Bluetooth is clever but it is a complicated digital protocol that isn’t always 100% reliable. It was meant for devices that stay in close proximity to each other and rarely go out of range.  It can have a hard time pairing up two devices that constantly are in and out of range. If you are a rider and a passenger, bluetooth should work just fine. If you are a pair of riders who ride together, in reasonably close formation, you should be fine as well. Some units now use a bluetooth hopping feature that allows multiple units to be part of a small network. Thus extending the range by extending the network, provided all your buddies are using it.  Also some riders link their bluetooth helmet units to their cellphones and then hold a conference call on all their phones. This ties up phones, and can be expensive but it works if there’s good cell coverage. Popular Bluetooth brands are Sena, Scala and Uclear with plenty of other competitors on the market. 

GMRS/FRS

What’s old is now new. You know those handy little walkie talkies with a 4 mile range, a wide array of channels and a simple push to talk/transmit button? Those things boaters, campers, and low budget security people use… what if someone made one for riders that was small and fit on a helmet? That’s what Chatterbox does and the latest models are now similar in size to the bluetooth units but with double the range. Since the primary com protocol is radio, there’s no bluetooth pairing. Just set the channel frequency for two or 100 riders. It makes no difference. A limitation is that it when you are transmitting you can’t hear the other party and vice versa. So some simple radio talking formalities can be helpful. These units do use bluetooth to connect GPS and smart phones. This is top grade equipment with quality speakers and microphones and easy to use interface. They are also rather expensive. This is what touring companies and rider training schools use to keep their personnel in contact during group rides and track coaching programs.

Fine Okay, so what do YOU use?

There is no best product, only the right tool for the job. What’s the right choice for you? Commuter? You and your passenger? You and your small riding crew? I am a motorcycle tour guide. My needs are a bit more “industrial strength” than your average rider. I have used three different bluetooth brands and two GMRS/FRS models from Chatterbox. I’ve also seen countless other bluetooth models show up on my tours. I’ve seen the happiness when they work. I’ve also seen the frustration of my clients fiddling with tiny buttons on the side of the road when units don’t work. For my purposes I need the Chatterbox units long range, quality components and ease of use. I need clear communication between the lead guide and the sweep guide on a tour.  I also need the simplicity of the push to talk transmit radio feature. I turn off voice activated mic options to keep the main com channel constantly clear between all our guides.  Also our luggage vehicle can tune into our frequency with a cheap hand held unit. I will have to admit,  I also happily use it for personal use and when I work with some of the top track training organizations so I’m quickly in the loop with all the coaches.  As a tour operator, proper com that works, makes my tours run smoothly and I’m willing to pay a significant premium for the best, because for me, it’s worth it. Your needs may differ but at least now you can make an educated buying decision on what’s right for you.



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