Bluetooth Helmet Headset Buyers Guide
Among our many reasons to ride, lots of us like to get away from the constant communication involved in daily life, to be alone in our helmets with just our thoughts and the rush of the wind. Others among us wear helmets but regret the isolation that they and wind noise bring to the motorcycling experience, craving interaction on long rides.
Whether you’re a couple riding two-up or buddies riding side-by-side, when you both feel the same way about communicating it’s a beautiful thing! And when you don’t, don’t worry—you’re probably just married. Give it half-an-hour and try again.
For those who do like to mix gettin’ down the road on a motorcycle with sharing the day’s events, talking over ideas about where to ride, eat or stop for a break, we bring you this guide. Dozens of different electronic audio devices and methods exist with which riders, passengers and even groups of riders can communicate with one another, from the built-in factory audio/intercom systems on luxury tourers—just plug in the appropriate helmet headsets—to standalone or bike-installed CB- and FRS-radio-based setups that are best for bike-to-bike use. Here we examine standalone Bluetooth helmet headsets, the simplest way to put your partner’s words into your head and vice versa while you’re wearing helmets, as well as your cell phone, MP3 player and GPS.
Bluetooth (BT) wireless technology comes in lots of things, from cars and bikes like the new BMW K 1600 GT/L to mobile phones and computers. It allows you to share voice, music and other information wirelessly between “paired” devices. Bluetooth uses radio waves, but unlike AM/FM radio signals that carry for miles, Bluetooth only transmits information within a small area, called a Personal Area Network (PAN). The size of the PAN or range of the device depends on, among other things, the Bluetooth Class (1, 2 or 3) being used; the power of the transceiver, antennas and other tricks up the makers’ sleeves; and the presence of obstacles between the devices. It’s generally from 10 meters (33 feet) or less up to claims of 2,300 feet and more.
Is it safe? Wikipedia says that Bluetooth uses the microwave radio frequency in the 2.402 GHz-2.480 GHz range, and maximum power output is 100 mW, 2.5 mW and 1 mW for Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 devices respectively. That puts Class 1 at roughly the same power level as mobile phones, and the other two classes much lower. All of the devices tested here are Class 1 or 2, but since the control units are on the outside of your helmet, they’re probably safer than using a cell phone. Unless you use them with your cell phone while riding, of course, which we can’t advise more strongly against. If you must use your cell phone while wearing a helmet, make sure you’re stopped somewhere safe first.
Within the Bluetooth specification a manufacturer can use different “profiles” to accomplish different types of Bluetooth connections, each of which are unique and secure to a pair or a number of devices included in the profile. A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), for example, is a Bluetooth profile for streaming audio, say from an MP3 player to a headset. Unlike the Headset and Hands-Free profiles for voice, A2DP supports stereo audio, and is one-way instead of two-way.
For the purposes of this guide, I sought Bluetooth headsets that are easy to install in, and remove from, a variety of full- or open-face helmets, and/or those whose manufacturer offers them preinstalled in helmets or installation service. You may not want it in your helmet when you’re riding solo, for example, or take the chance of damaging your helmet during installation. I did not include models like Nolan’s excellent N-COM system, for which at least one of its helmets is required. Be aware that due to the complexities of Bluetooth some sellers insist that all sales are final, but will usually provide technical support.
All five of the Bluetooth motorcycle helmet headsets reviewed here come in versions with flexible boom mics primarily for open-face or flip-up helmets, or with mics for full-face helmets you stick on or insert into the chinbar. Note that boom mics can be used in either type of helmet and are handy for moving the mic away from your face when desired. All have two speakers that vary in thickness among makers, important to consider if the helmet(s) you want to put them in have shallow ear pockets. All have wall chargers and rechargeable lithium batteries, and control units that separate from the installed speaker-mic assembly for charging away from the helmet. This is nice when the only wall socket in your hotel room is in the bathroom, for example.
At a minimum, all of the units here offer short charge times and plenty of battery life for all-day, full-duplex (like taking on the phone) rider-to-passenger intercom, Bluetooth cell phone and GPS connectivity, and Bluetooth and/or wired MP3 player connectivity. All incorporate profiles that let you place and receive calls and receive GPS prompts hands-free. They will stream music from MP3 players that incorporate Bluetooth (like the iTouch), or from a readily available BT stereo “dongle” attached to an MP3 player. By the way, you’ll need a dongle to pair both the phone and MP3 player in an iPhone to a BT headset at the same time.
Some also have enough range for bike-to-bike capability, but if this is important to you, consider a long-range CB- or FRS-radio-based setup. This advice will generate lots of letters from Bluetooth headset users who have had fine success using them bike-to-bike, but in my experience the limited number of connections, connection distance and obstacle interference (from things like buildings and trees) in general limit reliable Bluetooth bike-to-bike communication to when you’re very close to one another.
Finally, please consider this a brief overview of each unit’s features and functions—a truly thorough review of just one would require all of the space we have. When it comes to cell phone use, as there’s much variation out there I only tested each to be sure it would pair, place and receive a call—I did not test for hands-free dialing capability, though all of the units here have it. Much more information is available on the makers’ websites and elsewhere on the Interwebs.
Cardo Scala Rider Q2 Multiset Pro, $395.99 (includes 2)
Cardo’s Scala Rider series ranges from units for solo riders to its larger and most advanced G4 Powerset for two. The Multiset Q2 Pro comes with two Q2 Pro units in the box. It improves upon the Teamset Pro by incorporating an FM radio, A2DP stereo audio streaming, the ability to connect up to three Scala Rider units and—as a Class 1 BT device—has a claimed range of up to 2,300 feet.
Installation is a snap. You can clamp the control unit base/boom mic to the helmet or use the included adhesive plate; sliding the control unit onto the base makes all of the connections. My head shape and ears leave plenty of room for the clamp inside the helmet, but we had to use the sticky plate for my wife Genie because otherwise the helmet liner was squeezed in against her left ear. The glue plate is very strong but came off easily later. The small, thin speakers can be attached in the helmet ear pockets with hook-and-loop and pretty much disappear in most helmets, with wire leads that tuck away easily. You do need to keep both lips on the mic when talking for best clarity and volume.
Each Q2 Pro in the Multiset comes paired and ready for intercom use right out of the box, but pairing either one with another Q2 Pro (or even an earlier Scala Rider model), cell phone, MP3 player or GPS unit is easy. The Q2 uses the typical voice-activated (VOX) or manual phone/GPS/MP3 priority order when making/receiving calls, getting GPS prompts or listening to music while on the intercom, which can be toggled to chat two at a time among three units.
The Q2 Pro’s sole weakness is its audio clarity and volume, as the speakers are a compromise between size and ease of installation and comfort in many different helmets. At speeds over 40 mph or so, using full-face helmets you need to speak clearly and not say anything too complex or unexpected to be understood. Music also sounds tinny, whether from an MP3 source or the built-in FM radio. We experienced a line-of-sight range of about three-tenths of a mile, or about 1,500 feet, and the unit reconnected at about two-tenths, good enough for bike-to-bike use as well as chatting with someone, say, inside the store while you’re out pumping gas.
Chatterbox XBi2, $229.95 each
Chatterbox’s large X1 communicator has been a standby of many riders for years. If you’re patient enough to deal with its newer XBi2’s complex pairing process and confusing indicator lights, its small and compact size, ease of installation and acceptable audio quality are a big upgrade.
The XBi2 is unusual here in that—while its cell phone, GPS and A2DP stereo MP3 audio modes connect using Bluetooth Class 2, with a range of 33 feet or less—it uses a CDMA transceiver (a pre-GSM cell phone standard) for the intercom. This conserves the battery in audio mode and gives the intercom a line-of-sight range of almost half a mile in our testing, the best here, and it reconnected by itself at about four-tenths of a mile. The tradeoff is that it must be switched from audio to VOX/manual intercom mode and vice versa manually, though any of up to three users can do it with a single button press and speak simultaneously.
Audio clarity and volume were about third-best in this group of five. Though a little better than the Cardo and IMC, the XBi2’s smallish speakers sound tinny and make some words hard to understand at speed. Using the adhesive plate made this unit the least obtrusive and easy to install, though you do have to unplug the mic and speakers from the water-resistant control unit before detaching it from the helmet.
The key to using the Chatterbox XBi2, oddly enough, is youtube.com. The manual is poorly written, but the videos Chatterbox has posted on YouTube save the day and cover the complex pairing, switching modes, etc. Once you have it all figured out, using the units together and with cell, GPS and MP3 is straightforward, except that with some cell phones—if you pair a stereo Bluetooth adapter at the same time—it will sometimes dial the last number called on the cell phone when you connect to the music. Be ready to hit End on the phone.
Chatterbox also offers an XBi2-H model that fits in a recess in the HJC IS-Max BT helmet.
IMC Camos BTS-150 Partnerset, $300 (includes 2)
This IMC Partnerset is an inexpensive way to set you and your passenger up with a wireless Bluetooth rider-to-passenger intercom, as well as individual cell phone, GPS and music connectivity. The Camos BTS-150 is a little different because it’s not water-resistant, and is designed to be carried in a pocket or worn around your neck on the included lanyard. It connects to the speaker-mic package in the helmet with a single cable that has a butt connector in it about midway, so you can see the connector (to make the connection) with your helmet on.
Installation is by far the easiest here, with thin speakers in hook-and-loop pouches that fasten easily into helmet ear pockets. The package comes with both boom mics and stick-on chinbar mics, and everything connects independently. The two-channel system gives you the option of connecting wirelessly with up to two BT devices on channel one—cell phone, GPS or MP3 player—and the other BTS-150 on channel 2. You also have the option of connecting an MP3 player to the micro jack on each unit with the supplied cable, but it must be controlled separately. You need to press a button to switch among channels, and IMC says the intercom is not intended for bike-to-bike or speeds above about 60 mph. We found that with the mics set to maximum sensitivity the audio clarity was good but volume insufficient above more than 40-50 mph.
J&M Elite 277 Series, $299.99 each
J&M Corp. has been the standard bearer in wired motorcycle communications for decades, and its high standards for audio quality, clarity and volume have been carried over into its comparatively recent Bluetooth efforts. Its 277 Series BT Headset has audiophile-level sound quality on both intercom and in A2DP music streaming, the best here by far. Moreover, if you already own any J&M products like headsets, odds are there’s a way to connect this BT unit to them. J&M also installs the 277 Series in Arai, Nolan, Scorpion and other helmets and will even design custom BT dongles to help you to connect to BT devices the 277 does not out of the box. J&M issues firmware updates on occasion though the units must be sent back to them.
High-fidelity means large speakers, of course, and the 277s will require you to hollow-out ear pockets in most helmets if there aren’t any. Installation is otherwise easy, with the usual helmet clamp or adhesive plate for the control unit. Speakers and mic all connect independently for easy replacement, though you do have to unplug the mic and speakers from the control unit before detaching it from the helmet. Pairing with one other 277 and cell phones, MP3 players and GPS units is more involved than with some units here, but once accomplished works reliably. The 277 Series uses Bluetooth Class 2 and as such should not be considered a bike-to-bike unit, though we were able to use the intercom walking around a short distance apart.
Sena SMH10, $219 each
Sena’s shapely SMH10 reminds us of a Star Trek-type communicator, with its flashing strip indicator light and jog dial that is both a button and rotating volume control. The maker says it is water resistant, and its boom mic/helmet clamp can also be fastened with an adhesive plate. Attaching the control unit makes all of the connections. Installation in the helmet is easy, and the speakers are a good compromise between size and sound quality. They fit in most ear pockets easily, yet thanks to its audio booster and BT spec 2.1 crank out enough clarity and volume to be heard at high speeds, with fidelity second-best only to the J&M.
Pairing an SMH10 with up to three other SMH10s (for intercom conversation between two at one time) and to a cell phone, GPS or A2DP music source is straightforward. You can also connect an MP3 player with the supplied cable.
It operates with the function-priority order phone/ intercom/stereo music by cable/Bluetooth stereo music, so that phone interrupts intercom, intercom interrupts cable music and so on. As a Class 1 Bluetooth device it can be used bike-to-bike, and we found it had a line-of-sight range of about three-tenths of a mile, and reconnected immediately. Each unit comes with a DC socket (cigarette) charger as well as a USB power cable with wall adapter. A pack of two SMH10s is also available for $399 and several speaker-earbud-microphone variations are, too.
[This Bluetooth Helmet Headset Buyers Guide was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Rider magazine]