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  • Writer's pictureCarl Barrett Jr.

Communication is Key. Adventures in Helmet Audio.

There are a number of topics which are sure to cause lively debate amongst the ranks of wizened bikers, but perhaps primary among them is gear. There are as many opinions as there are riders and each and every one thinks they are doing it exactly right. There are those who think that anything less than all the gear at all the time is pigheaded foolishness and there are those that think a helmet and gloves ruin the experience and wearing them is more akin to driving a Prius than riding a motorcycle.

It's not just safety though. It's also rider aids and comfort where opinions differ. For some, the rush of the wind and drone of rubber on road is the only music they need, for others the preferred option is a 500W speaker system to share their favorite music with others in traffic. Personally, as much as I love the introspection and quiet contemplation that can happen on a long ride, I can't be trusted alone in my own head for that long! Maybe it's my ADHD but I really like to have something to listen to while on the road, something to keep the louder parts of my brain occupied while I enjoy the scenery. It's not always music either, which might be surprising to some, I also enjoy listening to podcasts and audiobooks.

Over my riding career I've employed many different methods of getting sound into my ears, with mixed results. In my earliest days I employed the tried and true method I learned from watching my dad get on Suzuki GS back in the day and just snaked a headphone cord under my shirt and into my helmet, with ear buds in my ears. He was using an AM/FM radio back then and I was using an mp3 player, but the function was the same! Though this worked, it left a lot to be desired, as it was relatively easy to move the wrong way, catch the cord on something and yank the earbud from my ear, and dooming myself to spending the next however many miles listening to the faint whispers of my music from some crevice in my helmet.

As Bluetooth technology improved, I started using LG Tones headsets that would go around my neck and pair wirelessly to my phone. I could snake the earbuds into my helmet and there were no wires to catch on anything. Progress! This was my go to set up for many tens of thousands of miles until a riding trip with a buddy in Georgia changed everything. He'd bought a dual set of Sena 20S headsets and had been using one solo for several weeks, telling me the whole time what a game changer it was. He was excited to get me to install his second unit so we could communicate during the trip.

Personally, I thought it sounded like a ton of work to install this unit in my helmet that I might not even keep when my Bluetooth headphones worked fine, but he was insistent so I gave it a go. That was my first time riding with a Bluetooth/Intercom device, and the last time I rode without one. Game changing is right. The advantages of this set up over any other music/communication for a motorcyclist are legion.

For starters, the sound is great, but without the compromise to hearing your surroundings. Riding with ear buds in both ears is actually illegal in many states, and with good reason. When you're already wearing a helmet, surrounded by winds that are louder than any rock concert, AND trying to listen to music, situational awareness is already a challenge. Jamming something into your ear canal doesn't help. Speakers in the helmet mean that you may be adding sound to the mix, but you're not taking anything away. Plus, pausing the music means unencumbered hearing immediately.

Then there's the communication aspect, something completely missing from other solutions. You CAN TALK TO OTHER RIDERS. There's really no way I can oversell how amazing this is. Instead of looking at the rider in front and going, "Huh, our turn was 10 miles ago, I wonder what the hell he's doing up there?" You can instead go, "Hey our turn was 10 miles ago, what the hell are you doing up there?" Instead of relying on someone looking in their rear view and catching your improvisational interpretive dance indicating you're going to need fuel really soon, you can simply say, "Hey, I need fuel really soon." It's a whole new life! Also, it means that if you're riding with someone you'd actually like to talk to, you can do so! It brings a whole new dimension to "riding together." Whether it's the person in your pillion seat, or the person riding on your 6, you're no longer in your own little bubbles. This can honestly be seen as a negative to people who see riding as a chance for solitude, but for a social person like myself, I see it as a real positive.

You can also take phone calls! Even after years of using these devices now, I still marvel that I can answer the phone going down the interstate at 70mph and have to tell the caller I'm riding my bike because they couldn't tell when I answered. I'm aware that this is achieved through some very novel noise cancelling software but it still seems like magic to me. Again, some of the lone wolfs out there might see being able to hear or answer your phone during a ride being a negative, but for those of us who ride our bikes as a our daily driver, not having to completely unplug from the world every time you throw a leg over your saddle is a blessing, plus my anxious mother sure likes being able to call and check on me while I'm on the road.

It's not just convenience and fun either. Communication is key to safety. Knowing where, when, and WHY the riders around you are doing what they're doing can be something as small as not leaving someone in the rear of a large group who's having mechanical issues, or could be the difference between life and death as it could mean not rear ending a lead rider who just saw the turn he was looking for.

Regardless of brand, I highly recommend to anyone who spends a moderate amount of time on a bike, get yourself a Bluetooth/Intercom unit. You will seriously not regret it. That said, not all units are built the same, and after much experimentation, my personal choice is a Cardo Packtalk Bold.

My path to the Packtalk Bold was a long one, and maybe I can save some steps for those reading. I'm a bit of nerd when it comes to tech and devices, and tend to be a fickle consumer. I want the products I buy to function well, and don't mind searching far and wide through many different devices to get the feature set I want. I've gone through many different set ups for my daily helmets, searching for the right mix of features and function.

My first device was a Sena 10C. Upon returning from that trip with my friend, I immediately started looking at a intercom of my own. At the time, Sena was the main company I heard about producing these types of units. Both other riders I knew and forums and Facebook posts were all pushing Sena. So that seemed to me to be the easiest choice for manufacturer. The 10C also came with an integrated camera, and I'd always wished I could take more pics on my bike, so that also seemed the easy choice. I ran this set up for about a year, and while it had a number of good things about it, there was a lot I found lacking. The camera placement was not bad at all and had a clean look, and it recorded audio through the Sena's noise cancelling mic. This meant that you could not only talk over your videos with no additional equipment or software, but also that wind noise in videos was almost non-existent. This is a REALLY amazing feature for those who like to share riding videos, and it was one I took for granted at the time. If there's one thing I miss about this headset, it's this.

There are downsides to the integrated design though. For one, both the camera and the headset were on the same battery. Bluetooth tech is notoriously battery efficient, with most audio devices able to work for hours on relatively small batteries. Helmet units are no exception, and it's expected that 10 or 15 hours of riding on a single charge be possible. The 10C could pull this off.... if you didn't use the camera. Cameras, unlike Bluetooth audio units, are notoriously power hungry. A 10 minute video meant sacrificing 5 hours of music. Exacerbating this issue was that the 10C had an integrated battery, When it died the only recourse was to plug it in and wait, meaning no camera OR sound. Also, possibly in effort to save space and battery, the camera's storage wasn't accessible wirelessly. The only way to export videos was to plug the camera into a computer. Not ideal for sharing trips on social media, which was one of the main reasons I wanted a camera. The other main issue with this unit was that the music/sound quality was underwhelming. You could hear the music, sure, but it was tinny. It did the job, but I felt like I could do better. The search continued.

My next jump was to the Sena 20S. This was the unit that made me originally buy into the helmet audio systems, and I knew the sound would be improvement over the 10C. This meant losing my camera, which caused me to go with a Sony Action Cam, and then later my GoPro Hero 9, but that's a journey for another article.

I got the 20S in a dual kit I split with my dad, which really made the intercom features become useful for me. No longer were those communication bonuses theoretical or something I got to experience on random group rides and trips, but something I could use all the time. My dad is the person I ride with the most often, and now we could communicate on every ride! This is really where these units shine, when you have other riders who you often share the road with. I really liked the 20S, and there's a lot to like in the design. The jog wheel for volume on the side is easy to use with a glove, and the battery life was amazing, but again felt there was some room for improvement. The sound was better than my 10C, but still not what I'd call great. The thin helmet speakers made by Sena just don't have much in the way of mid/bass range. That's somewhat expected in this form factor, but it was really noticeable how absent these tones were. Some songs with especially high notes were sometimes uncomfortable to hear even. I also had some issues with their noise cancelling during use as an intercom. Phone calls sounded amazing for both sides of the convo, but for some reason my dad and I could never eliminate wind noise while connected by intercom. No amount of fiddling with settings or connections would change it. Not sure if this was a defect in the software or hardware on one or both of our units, but it was an issue the entire time we had these units. The search continued.

Now several years into this journey, I'd become a lot more versed in the technology and available units. The technology itself had also progressed. More and more, I'd hear people talk about the alternative to the Sena devices everyone took for granted, Cardo. Cardo had apparently been in the game for a long time, but failed to achieve the mainstream notoriety of Sena. Much was being said though, of their recent line of products, the Freecom and Packtalk line. Multiple riders I knew had told me of their superiority, but since upgrading meant talking my dad and best bud out of their Senas, I didn't make the plunge right away.

What pushed me over the edge was that original buddy, the one who first forced me to try his 20S, making the jump to a Packtalk Bold. He called me and said we'd been doing it all wrong, and I HAD to hear the difference these speakers made. JBL had recently partnered with Cardo, and their Packtalk Bold line was apparently their audio focused one. With this recommendation I spent yet more money (It's a good thing motorcycle dollars don't count!) and made the jump from the Sena products I'd been using for half a decade at this point.

The Cardo Packtalk Bold. This is the droid I'd been looking for. While I have some minor complaints about their formfactor versus Sena's, that's where the complaints end. This is quite simply the best unit I've ever used. The difference from the sound on the 20S is literally night and day. While still not a bass heavy speaker by any means, the sound mix by JBL and the 40mm speakers provided by Cardo are plenty full and robust sounding. Not just that, but they are LOUD. I could turn any of my Sena units to the full max on volume on both the device and my phone and still be wanting. I actually run my Cardo at around 70% volume, as 100% is uncomfortably loud. Not only this, but their noise cancelling during intercom sessions is just as good as phone calls. Wind noise is no longer an issue, regardless of speed. These units also utilize MESH unit pairing as well as Bluetooth, and I can confirm both settings work great. I have actually been able to pair both with Sena 20S users via Bluetooth as well as Cardo MESH users without issue.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for this device is biased by the looong road it took to find it, but I really couldn't be happier. So much so that when I recently purchased a new helmet, I also order Cardo's $60 second helmet kit at the same time, as there was no way I'd be riding without it! I truly believe that these intercom devices are game changing pieces of gear that any rider could benefit from. Now, full disclosure, Sena has now responded to Cardo's encroachment on their market share by releasing the reportedly mediocre 30K and more recently the reportedly much improved 50S, as well as a whole line of new products. There's even a new 10C Evo and an upgraded line of speakers on offer as well. I haven't used any of these new devices and it's entirely possible they may be improvements over the Packtalk Bold. Cardo has also released a 45mm speaker upgrade kit as well as the Packtalk Slim and Packtalk Bold Black. Surely my adventures in intercom buying aren't over, as the tech improves by the day, and my tech desires are never truly satisfied, but at the moment, I think the Packtalk Bold I'm very happy with my current set up and would recommend the Packtalk Bold as a great buy!


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