Common Tread

Choosing a Bluetooth communicator 101

Dec 29, 2016

Communicating while riding used to be an interesting affair of hand signals that sometimes did not seem as universal as you originally thought.

Did you see something really cool and you want to tell your buddy, or maybe you just had a close call and now you need to stop and change your pants? Bluetooth communicators and intercoms for motorcycle helmets work much better, but with so many choices, how do you decide which one is best for you?

As Gear Geeks, we get calls all the time from customers who are trying to narrow down the best options for their individual needs. Here’s the most important question I start with: What do you want this device to do for you? Most people want to listen to music, connect to their phone, and talk with a riding buddy or a passenger.

So to help you narrow down the answer to the question of why you want to use a Bluetooth unit, here’s a breakdown of the common questions we usually run through with customers.

Sena 10U in a Shoei Neotec helmet
Anthony displays a Sena 10U in a Shoei Neotec helmet. Image from RevZilla video.

I have X helmet. Can I put a Bluetooth unit in it?

This is one of the most common questions, but a pretty easy one to answer. Almost any helmet can accept a communication system and you can easily check your own by looking inside the shell of your helmet. Some helmets have specific units that are made for them, such as the Bell Mag 9, Nolan N104 Evo and Schuberth helmets. Helmets that have circular cutouts in the EPS foam near the ears will be best suited for holding speakers without putting extra pressure on your ears.

Fitting a communicator is more difficult with some helmets than with others, though. Helmets with internal drop-down sun visors that have the mechanism located on the bottom of the shell will require that the unit be put further back on the helmet, for example.

Lemmy and Spurgeon riding
Bluetooth communicators are an integral part of the gear used to make those on-bike videos... or when Lemmy and Spurgeon need to debate what's for lunch. Image from RevZilla video.

I want to connect to all of my riding buddies. What unit should I get?

The big question is how many riders you want to communicate with. If you need to communicate with more than 10 riders, then you will have to go old-school and use a CB. That will include more than just your riding buddies, depending on the channel you’re on, and you’ll need that unit mounted on your bike somehow. For six to 10 riders, we currently have three options: the Cardo Pack Talk, Sena 20S, and Uclear AMP Pro. For all the feature breakdowns, you will want to checkout the videos, but for most people I find the standout is the Sena 20s and here is why: Bluetooth multitasking.

Bluetooth multitasking works much like your cell phone when you are listening to music and GPS at the same time and your phone dims the music to the background to give you the GPS directions and then returns the volume when they are complete. This unit works the same when you listen to music and your friend starts talking with you.

The 20s is the only unit that will allow you to speak with other riders and listen to music at the same time. After doing an eight-hour ride from Virginia to North Carolina with a friend, I can attest that I would have loved that functionality. While we managed to talk for eight hours with few lulls in the conversation, I still would have enjoyed the music. If your group is larger than six, though, the AMP Pro and Cardo Pack Talk will allow everyone to communicate in conference. If you ride with a smaller group, you have plenty of options. To narrow this down, I always ask if the people you ride with already have a unit they use. If they do, then we generally suggest selecting the same brand unit, since they will work best with one another.

There are a lot of units which will allow rider-to-rider and rider-to-passenger communication. Some of the standouts that allow four riders to communicate in conference are the Cardo G9X, Sena SMH10/R and 10S/R/U, and the Interphone F5. All of these have different pros and cons, so you will want to see the product videos or details sections for full breakdowns.

Bluetooth Communicators buyers guide
2016 RevZilla Bluetooth Communicators guide. Image from RevZilla video.

I do not plan to talk to anyone else but want to listen to music and my GPS

This one is usually pretty easy, since most units will allow you to listen to music via Bluetooth connection to your cell phone or iPod and link to a Bluetooth-capable GPS unit (though this is GPS-specific and not all will work). Many riders just want to get out there, put on some soothing music, and relax, kind of like motorcycle zen. If that sounds like you, there are simpler units like the Sena 3S or Cardo QZ. These will allow you to get your music, phone or GPS to your helmet without the extra frills of higher-priced units. Some of those higher priced units may offer better sound quality though.

I like to rock out when I ride. How is the sound quality?

While we all love to hear quality music, Bose-quality sound is not something you should expect, as every unit I have tried is always lacking in bass. But then how can I hear my sick bass drop?!? Well, my fellow dubstepper, some units have the ability to use aftermarket speakers or earbuds. Currently, the Cardo Scala Rider PackTalk, SmartPack, Q series, and G9x offer this capability, along with the Sena 20S and 10S out of the box, so there is hope for you to get all the bass you want. These units use a standard headphone jack, which would allow you to hook up ear buds, if that is what you prefer, or go with a set of aftermarket speakers.

I just bought a Harley/BMW with Bluetooth connectivity. What can I get?

Sena FreeWire
The Sena Freewire helps you connect your Bluetooth helmet device with the built-in system on your Harley-Davidson. RevZilla image.
First, congratulations on that new bike! Sadly, at the time of this writing, none of the Bluetooth devices on the market will link to your onboard infotainment system or BMW onboard system perfectly without getting an OEM-specific unit from the dealer. That said, Sena just released the FreeWire, which promises to allow you to utilize the infotainment system on your bike as an addition. Some people have been successful in connecting the regular units to at least hear music, but there is not yet a unit in the aftermarket which will allow for full functionality with the built-in systems.

What kind of range will I get?

Let’s face it, everyone gets into the zone when the road gets curvy. Groups spread out, so having some range really helps. Range for all Bluetooth units currently depends on line of sight. This means that all the advertised ranges each manufacturer provides is in open terrain (think flat desert), where the units can still see one another. If your riding regularly puts you in tight, rock-lined canyons, or dense forests where trees and mountains will be in the way, then expect your range to be reduced.

Bluetooth companies are currently working on ways to help improve that range through what Cardo is calling the DMC or Dynamic Meshwork Communication and Uclear’s Multi-Hop Technology. By having multiple riders in one group, your communication range can increase since each unit has a range of around one mile. So five riders spread out over a five-mile range could still communicate, as long as each unit maintained line of sight and one mile between units.  

Who can I talk to?

Many of the Bluetooth units on the market now have a “Universal Pairing” function, which will allow you to link with units that are not within the same brand. That said, units will still work best when paired within the same brand, i.e. Sena with Sena, Cardo with Cardo, etc. For this reason we always suggest getting the same brand as your riding partner for ease of use.

Hopefully, this overview can help a little with where and how to start your search for a Bluetooth device. You will definitely want to check out our video breakdowns and product descriptions before pulling the trigger. As always, you can contact a Gear Geek for more specific help. Ride on!