Motorcycle Intercoms – The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide
The ability to communicate with your co-riders in real-time when riding as a group is important not because it makes the ride exciting and fully-coordinated, but it also enhances the safety of each rider as threats can be detected early by any biker and communicated quickly to other riders, while riders who have suffered an injury can easily ask for help.
On the other hand, you can use an integrated intercom system when riding alone, and in this instance, it should allow you to receive phone calls, or even serve as a playback device for listening to your favorite music.
Evidently, the motorcycle intercom system has been built as a versatile product that serves multiple functions apart from supporting voice communication over a wireless network.
Even so, acquiring a low-quality model can be upsetting and a safety risk as it not only ruins voice communication, but also creates an unreliable communication channel that cannot allow you to be alerted of risks ahead of your path, or allow you to request for help when you need it.
So, how does one differentiate between a high-quality and a low-quality headset?
Put another way, how can a noob know that a motorcycle intercom model that is being marketed makes the cut as a dependable and durable product?
The answer to these questions is that you need to consider 9 critical factors before settling down on a particular model.
These critical factors are discussed below, along with an additional factor – music playback.
Also, there is need to mention here about the two types of integrated motorcycle intercom systems – the Bluetooth helmet and the detachable Bluetooth headset that can be easily fitted into any helmet.
The Bluetooth helmet offers the advantage of a unified design and utility compactness that defines high-end, high-quality models where the headset is designed to be operated through voice-control and its ear muffs are well-positioned for comfortable fit on the head.
However, if you have several helmets and would like to use different helmets for different occasions when riding in the open, then it is advisable that you acquire a high-quality Bluetooth headset whose build design allows for easy fitment into your helmets, while possessing the qualities of good intercom models described hereafter.
1. Sound Quality
The intercom unit should allow you to talk with another person, be it your pillion passenger or a fellow biker, or both; and this requires both of you to hear each other clearly when having a conversation.
This is achieved if the intercom system allows for transmission of crisp clear voice signals that maintain the fidelity of human voice without introducing electrical artifacts (such as sparking which creates spark sounds in conversations), or losing loudness, pitch, and tone.
This high-fidelity intercom system should be able to support crisp clear conversation regardless of where you are riding – be it in a heavy and noisy traffic snarl-up, or an open countryside.
Digital signal processing (DSP) chips
Voice fidelity is determined by the digital signal processing (DSP) chip in the headset. This chip features an integrated analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that analyzes, manipulates, and digitizes analog (audio) signal; and this allows for audio signal sampling.
A high-quality DSP chip can measure analog sound signals, and filter out those whose frequency and amplitude are outside the range of human voice, and then compress or transmit the lossless filtered audio to another headset.
This form of digital processing allows for detection and correction of error in audio signals, as well as provide data compression for transmission of otherwise huge packets of binary data.
Also, a good DSP chip would allow you to maintain a crisp communication channel when riding at high speeds.
Wind sound reduction
Another thing to consider is that voice communication becomes difficult the faster you go with speeds exceeding 60 miles-per-hour (mph) or 96 kilometers-per-hour (kph) creating significant air drag behind the rider (according to Bernoulli’s Principle) that generates a low-pressure region (behind/adjacent to the helmet) that amplifies wind sound.
Normally, as you cut through wind, a loud noise is generated that starts to drown out human voice, even if one shouts.
Therefore, when choosing an intercom headset, you should look for one that allows you to communicate when biking at high-speeds (in excess of 100kph); and you can also verify this information from the specification datasheet of the model if it is available online.
If a model lacks a supporting document, especially one that lists its capabilities, then it is best to avoid it.
Noise Control System
The main component in the headset that determines sound quality is the noise control system; and as previously described, NCT and intelligent noise control offers some of the best acoustic cushion against external interference when you are talking with a passenger or fellow rider.
The noise control system built on either of these two technologies would allow for reduction of engine and wind sound.
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2. Intercom Mount
Another factor to consider when purchasing a Bluetooth headset is how it is going to be mounted to your helmet.
There are two ways to mount the headset – clamp mount and tape mounting. Tape mounting uses a tape (usually an elastic tape that ensures snug fit) to attach the headset to the helmet, and normally offers a poor mount as compared to clamp mounting.
In clamp mounting, a clamp is provided along with the headset, which allows you to clamp the headset and helmet together which provides a secure fit whose components do not vibrate against each other.
Expectedly, the choice of intercom mount does not apply to Bluetooth helmets as the headset is built into the helmet scaffold.
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3. Wireless Technology
As mentioned earlier, the wireless technology used in motorcycle intercom system is based on radio technology, with all using UHF radio wavelengths.
If a modified two-way radio is what you need as an intercom system, then you should look for an FRS or GMRS headset, but such a headset suffers security and privacy loopholes though its range is far greater than that afforded by Bluetooth headsets.
Such as intercom is valuable for team patrols, including neighborhood patrols, or touring of vast open terrains. However, if you need just an intercom for fun riding, then go for a Bluetooth headset, which is currently the most popular motorcycle intercom system.
In fact, Bluetooth headsets are more versatile than FM-based intercoms can ever be, and they can be synced with smartphones and other smart devices to allow for hands-free control of multiple smart devices.
High-end Bluetooth headsets feature range-extending technologies which allow for wireless communication over large distances.
4. Bluetooth Range
As mentioned earlier, bikers ride as a tight pack when riding together. Still, the size of this pack is determined by the WPAN created by the Bluetooth intercoms used by the riders as this ensures that everyone is within the radius subscribed by the WPAN intercom system.
This influences the choice of Bluetooth headset as you are required to choose a model whose range suits your pack.
This can be done by asking these critical questions: Does the range only support conversing with a pillion passenger, or can it allow you to converse with a biker several hundred meters away from you which allows the team to stretch out the pack and give each rider adequate space for maneuvering his/her bike?
The basic rule is that a range of 500 meters is suitable for small groups of up-to 5 riders, with the range increasing to 1000 meters if the group is large.
Also, the terrain where you are riding should be factored, as it could have physical and non-physical obstructions that interfere with propagation of EMW which affects wireless voice transmission, hence reducing the effective range of your headset.
As expected, city riding requires you to have a headset whose Bluetooth capability allows for better communication through EMW obstructions as compared to riding in the open countryside.
5. Battery Life
Motorcycle intercom systems are portable units that come as a standalone model that are powered by batteries.
Some of these batteries are lithium-ion batteries similar to that found on phones, and as expected, each headset comes with a charging gear that allows you to charge your headset, with some models allowing you to charge it when riding.
The key considerations about powering a portable intercom system is the how long the battery lasts after being fully charged (battery life) when idle and when powering an electrical load (the headset), charging time, and battery lifespan.
You should choose a model with a durable battery that has a long battery life and a relatively short charging time.
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6. Number of Parallel Connections
There is no master station in motorcycle intercoms systems, rather the system is formed by connecting individual headsets into a networked wireless intercom, with each headset operating as an autonomous sub-station that supports peer-to-peer communication.
Normally, each headset is expected to make more than one connection, and the number of parallel connections that a headset model support defines its utility as a high-capacity motorcycle intercom.
You should choose a model that supports at least 3 connections, with the ideal number of connections determined by the size of your ride group.
Considerably, intercom headset price increases as the number of connections it supports increase. Though it is recommended that you remain price conscious, there is need to avoid skimping on the maximum number of connections supported by a particular model.
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7. Mode of Operation – Voice-activated with Manual Override
Motorcycle intercom system are portable units that are fitted in the helmet where it cannot be easily reached by hand.
Therefore, what you need to look for is a hands-free system, preferably a voice-control model.
Modern Bluetooth headsets are voice-activated, and you need to choose a voice-activated model that supports manual override – that is, the intercom can be turned off using a manual switch so that you can use the headset for other functions such as making or receiving a phone call.
8. Smartphone Connectivity and Synchronization
Smartphones are ubiquitous these days, and you should not switch off your phone when riding, unless you want to enjoy your time without disruptions from phone calls.
Otherwise, you can connect your Bluetooth headset to your phone, and then strap your phone is a safe pocket in your riding gear.
This smartphone connectivity provides call and playback features, with some high-end models supporting audio narration of your SMS messages.
This also saves you the hassle of keeping your smartphone on your front board or pockets where it is liable to fall off, or be soaked with water, if not rained upon when it rains.
The Bluetooth module allows for establishment of connection between the headset and smartphone, and this connectivity allows for synchronization of various phone functions to capabilities provided by the headset.
Therefore, you should choose a headset with a myriad of Bluetooth-supported capabilities, especially ability to make and receive phone calls via voice-activated and voice-controlled headsets.
Another critical utility provided by smartphone connectivity is GPS support.
A smartphone that comes with built-in GPS can be synced to the headset so that the rider has a reliable map to guide him/her. Even so, not all Bluetooth intercoms support GPS, and you should therefore look for one that supports GPS.
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Biking is an outdoor activity, and you can be caught up in a drizzle or light rain when riding in an open terrain without shades, and this requires you to use a weather resistant model.
Weather resistance is afforded in integrated models by building the headset into the helmet scaffold, but in models that allow you to simply fit them into any helmet, then you need to waterproof your intercom. Some high-quality models come already waterproofed, and you should go for such models, if you do not want a Bluetooth helmet.
You should also remember that weather-resistant models are not necessarily water-proofed.
This is not usually a needed feature, but because most bikers have repeatedly advocated for intercom systems that support music playback, it was added as a tradeoff between rider safety and customer satisfaction.
This feature is packaged as Bluetooth-supported music sharing, and the headset earphones or helmet headphones determine the audio quality.
Still, caution is called for, and you must remember that riding bikes while listening to music, especially load music whose bass level produces considerable SPL in the helmet can be dangerous as it creates distraction that takes your concentration away from riding and observing safety rules, hence exposing you to preventable accidents.
As expected, the motorcycle intercom system should be within your projected budget, and you should tie your price range to the considerations discussed above.
The other features that you should consider is aesthetics, and headset weight as the product is designed to be fitted in a helmet that is carried on your head.
Heavy models can tire your neck and occipital muscles hence precipitating tension-type headaches, especially if you bike for long with hydrating.
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