So, you’ve found a friend and want to have a chat via helmet comms. But what features do you need to consider? Ariel Atom owners Matt P and Bob S share their thoughts…
I’ve used helmet communicators a fair bit now from bikes to cars and even skydiving! Last year my ride group all upgraded to the higher end of the market, which is either the Sena 50s range or the Cardo Packtalk Bold range. These 2 makes are both about £450 – £550 for a dual pack for you and your passenger, which is nearly double the price of the mid-tier offerings from the same brands; and about 3 times the price of the cheapest and cheerfulness ones out there.
I have the Sena 50 now (after recently upgrading from a mid-range system) and use it a lot when on the bike or in the Atom. It works well for me because we often join up ‘en-route’ to the start point and can hook up while riding / driving without having to wait until we pull over and start the cumbersome connecting ritual. Trust me, when you travel in a group, you need a system that allows you to drop out and join easily as because you never know when you’re either get split up or floor the pedal and head for the horizon. You really don’t want to be the weakest link 😉
I purchased a Cardo FREECOM1+ for both my helmets so I can communicate with the passenger and listen to music on spirited drives and I am blown away at just how good it is. A duo pack of the FREECOM1+ entry level cost £187 which is all I need.
The Cardo (and Sena) units seem to be the choice of track instructors. Before I had the Cardo, I had to pit in every couple of laps to talk, but we can do it on circuit.
It comes with 40mm flat weighted speakers that fit my Arai GP6 helmet nicely – there is a section for them. And fits my Arai Profile V passenger helmet. It supports multiple Bluetooth devices, integrates with Spotify so you can listen to music. You can even stream your music to the passenger. To talk you enter talk mode, you can stay in that mode or come out of it to listen to music or the radio (or exhaust). It comes with a boom mic that fits the helmets ok in the chin bar. It’s IP67 so waterproof and has a runtime of 13hrs between charges.
What to look for
The communicator you settle on will depend on what you want to use it for and what your expectations are. If you use it primarily for solo driving or passenger comms, you can save a packet over the higher end models and still benefit from great audio quality and a host of comms / music choices. But if you use it a lot in a group where you are traveling with and in different vehicles, you will eventually end up buying from the Sena / Cardo range (or wishing you had), and frankly, it transforms the driving experience.
The biggest difference between the higher end Sena 50 / CardoPack units and the mid-tier communicators are:
Just hearing the other person is not good quality. Hearing them crystal clear first time, like they are sitting next to you in your front room is good quality. This is also a big deal if you listen to music. You really can’t beat a high end JBL in-ear helmet speaker – unless you want to find somewhere to mount a 12” subwoofer in your Atom.
Noise cancelling at the top end of the range is now very good. And at 100+mph on a naked motorbike head-first into the wind, it must be. BUT… great noise cancelling can also cause disappointment. Sometimes you WANT others to hear your rev needle hitting red, while the tyres squeal and the wastegate chuffs and hisses. But they won’t.
Seamless entry / exit
I hinted at this previously, but the cheaper your set-up is, the more time you will spent fiddling in car parks and laybys swearing and sound checking. Until a few years ago, everything was a point-to-point Bluetooth connection – and the mid-range units still generally are. These are inherently unstable when members in the group are veering in and out of range (like through towns or tunnels).
We now have MESH technology to replace the old direct Bluetooth connections. MESH is a comms mesh that ‘self heals’ and allows people to enter and exit the comms mesh seamlessly, as well as extending the range of your communication group. For example, if you are at the back of a group, then your ‘you missed the turn’ message is relayed through the middle group right up to the front; even if you are well out of range of the plonker that just missed the turn.
Don’t believe anything written on the boxes – halve it! You may get a 2km range in Iceland across a clear frozen lake, but in Surrey with hills and metal trucks and phone masts, forget it! Good news is all top range units have mobile phone integration to boot. So even if your mesh group can’t quite reach the nutter who is now 5 miles off course, 2 button clicks, and you can simply phone the guy up front and mock them.
Mobile phone integration
As mentioned above, often overlooked but surprisingly useful / important on spirited tours and when mixing with non-helmeted folk (like when I’m on a drive and the misuses wants to tell me that the kids are playing up. Hhhmmm… Maybe not that important on second thoughts.
Seriously though, our group also use the mobile integration when we’re about 10-15 mins out from a meet and are coming in from all directions – not quite in Mesh range.
Ease of use
Good software and speed dialling capabilities are important if you either wear gloves or need to quickly thumb a speed dial without ‘using your phone while driving’. Try and look for easy-to-use speed dial and call answering buttons – especially buttons that can be used with chunky gloves. Yes, the Sena 50 comes with Siri, but she can be a temperamental mistress at times…
Not everyone on a ride or drive with older / lower level devices will be able to connect to the Mesh network, so a fallback to Bluetooth is desirable. But with great power comes great responsibility… Do you drop out of the group to connect to Mike to tell him he has left his indicators on, or just pretend you didn’t notice…???
Note on proprietary Mesh technology
At time of writing, it is not possible to mix-and-match a Sena mesh with a Cardo mesh, so everyone will need to be running the same ‘brand’. Of course, you could revert back to Bluetooth if you find yourself in this situation.
We would definitely recommend the step up from entry level comms to the mid / higher range of the spectrum. The quality of audio, range and features are a marked improvement. In terms of where you sit in this range, this will largely depend on the features you need; which can be further summarised as: driver and passenger V traveling in a pack.