Chat Room on the Road
"I want short wave radio. I want TV and a phone. You know I got to talk to my baby. When I’m riding alone…" Chuck Berry, "No Money Down," 1955
Talking to his baby when she was riding her own motorcycle isn’t exactly what Chuck Berry had in mind when he wrote these lyrics, but he was clear on the concept – good communication is the basis of a good relationship, and a great ride.
For example, let’s say you’re riding along, listening to your favorite album on your i-Pod, and your stockbroker urgently needs to talk with you. Your cell phone rings and interrupts the music. You take the call without pulling over and, when your broker’s finished and you’ve cashed in, the music comes back on. Or maybe it’s the voice of your buddy on his GSXR-1000 a hundred yards ahead that breaks in to point out a black-and-white lurking on a side road.
Even a simple request to the rider up ahead to pull over for a bathroom break can be delivered much more easily and safely over a bike-to-bike intercom than by the usual hair-ball pass and flailing arms. There are a thousand situations where being able to talk hands-free to another rider in your group, or to your passenger, can tip the scales from frustration and risk-taking to satisfaction and safety.
This is all true provided the sound you hear is clear and easily understandable. The surprising thing is that this clarity is possible even inside a helmet on a motorcycle doing 75 on the freeway, in a cross wind, in the rain. I tested Cardo’s Scala Q2 Multiset Bluetooth system under all these circumstances and was frankly amazed by how well it all worked.
Here’s what the two-headset Scala Q2 system offers:
> Bike-to-bike communication, or
> Bike-to-passenger communication
> (or both of the above, with a third headset for the passenger)
> Bluetooth connection to your mobile phone
> GPS audio navigation instructions (via Bluetooth)
> FM radio with station presets
> MP3-player speaker system (via wire connection)
From the start, when you first open the box, you’ll be impressed with the quality that has gone into this product. No chintzy plastic package to slice open with a pocketknife: the pieces come in an attractive and durable box for organizing and storing everything.
The manual is well written, which is important because all this functionality requires learning which buttons to push how many times and for how long to make it do exactly what you want. That’s best done in your living room before using it on a trip. Mount the microphone and speakers in your helmets and try out all the situations described in the manual.
You’ll discover that the mounting of the headset on the helmet is rather easy (I used the removable, screw-clamp mount rather than the glue mount) and that the placement of the speakers inside the helmet is the trickiest and most important of all the possible adjustments. The speaker has to be directly opposite your ear canal.
There are four push buttons on the headset: on/off, connection control, volume up and volume down. Once familiar with their location and function, it’s not hard to operate the last three of these while riding, and even while wearing winter gloves. The microphone is easy to position with the stiff but still-flexible wire that connects it to the headset clamp. The microphone works best inside a full-face or flip-up helmet because the chin guard provides protection from the wind.
The system is comfortable to use in that you almost don’t notice its presence. I could reposition the microphone if not in use for a long period, and the speakers did not press uncomfortably against my ears. The headset is "water resistant," meaning that it can be used in a moderate rain but not in a deluge. You’ll need to recharge the batteries after (up to) eight hours of talk time or a week of stand-by operation.
One of the big questions in my mind was how the system would work in conjunction with earplugs. I use earplugs religiously, as wind noise on my Triumph Tiger (as with every other bike I’ve owned) is painful. The road test showed that the helmet speakers provide adequate volume and relatively undistorted sound. This was the most important test for me, because I would give up an intercom system before I’d stop using earplugs.
The next question was sound quality in bike-to-bike communication on the road, and the system passed this test, too. So long as the Bluetooth wireless connection was good, the quality of the voice coming from the other end was excellent. Wind, and noise from an aftermarket pipe on one bike, did not prevent a comfortable back-and-forth communication. The system is "full duplex" meaning you don’t have to say "over" when you’re done talking; both persons can talk and hear the other at the same time.
Our road test revealed that Bluetooth even works around corners. Although it’s best over a "line-of-sight" path, my friend and I could still communicate on a twisty road when he was around a corner and there was a hillside between us. The sound quality deteriorated a little, but we could still understand each other. If he was two turns ahead, though, we lost communication.
On a freeway, we found that the maximum distance over which the two headsets could still function was several hundred yards, consistent with the manufacturer’s claim of a quarter-mile. That distance would shorten, however, if cars began to block the line of sight.
Long range communication between two headsets while riding is possible via a cell phone to cell phone connection. For this to be practical, however, both cell phones should have voice-activated dialing.
I found that the volume required to initiate a conversation varied from normal speech when off the bike to a shout or a whistle when riding. That’s because the system adjusts both the volume and the voice-activation threshold to the ambient circumstances, so that wind noise doesn’t constantly trigger it.
There is a definite hierarchy for the levels of communication. An incoming cell phone call or audio communication from the GPS interrupts a conversation in progress. Initiating a conversation will interrupt the FM radio. The MP3 player has the lowest priority; only after both headsets are quiet for 30 seconds does the system revert to stand-by mode or the MP3 player.
The FM radio capability has six preset stations, and you can scroll through them by tapping one of the buttons on the headset. Establishing the presets requires a higher level of button pushing, one that I’d be tempted to skip while riding. If you enjoy listening to music on the road, I would recommend using an MP3 player rather than relying on the FM radio.
What didn’t work: Connecting a cell phone and a GPS. The Scala can connect with only one Bluetooth device at a time, so the cell phone has to connect to the GPS and, through the GPS, to the headset. According to the manual, there may be some particular GPS device and cell phone brand combinations for which this serial Bluetooth connection won’t work. In our case, the GPS connection worked but the GPS would not accommodate communication from the headset through the GPS to the cell phone.
An annoyance: when listening to the MP3 player, the volume can be adjusted only with the MP3 player, and not with the volume-up, volume-down buttons on the headset. This is because the MP3 player is connected directly to the speakers and means you have to stop riding when, for example, you want to lower the MP3 volume after exiting the freeway and entering a town.
What I’d like to see in the future: besides a headset volume adjustment for the MP3 player, a slow ramp up in volume when the player comes back on after a 30 second hiatus in voice communication. With the present full-off to full-volume turn on, you can be startled if the music is loud when it returns.
Overall evaluation: This is an excellent motorcycle communication system. It’s the quality of the sound, the excellent mechanical design and construction, and the extensive functionality it offers, which earn this rating. I found I could converse with my riding partner with face-to-face ease, even at freeway speeds and using earplugs to suppress wind noise. Taking an incoming cell phone call while riding was a piece of cake, and when nothing else was going on I could enjoy my MP3 player all day.
The Scala Q2 multiset comes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. Prices for this two-headset system varied from about $375 at local dealers to an MSRP of $396 on the Cardo Systems website. Cardo offers less expensive two-headset systems for rider to passenger (only) communication, or a more pricey but longer range system (up to one mile) for bike-to-bike conversation. Find a dealer near you by visiting: www.cardosystems.com