Some motorcyclists, when asked about doing the things they do in a car without giving it a second thought — like listening to some tunes or gabbing on the phone—recoil at the thought of doing those things while riding. They are wise. Those are distractions … distractions that can have much more serious repercussions than they would in a car. If you are in that group, we salute you.
The rest of us think (maybe speciously) we can handle the mild distraction of listening to audio or the moderate distraction of maintaining a two-way phone or intercom conversation. To do that, there are three basic ways to wire your helmet for sound. You can use speakers and a microphone hard-wired into your helmet, you can use earbuds or earplug speakers, or you can try one of the many Bluetooth headsets on the market today. I like BT sets because you can easily switch from bike to bike and not risk damaging your hearing with earbuds, which pipe very loud sound right into your eardrums.
I’ve tried a half-dozen Bluetooth headsets, and they all worked about the same — unsatisfactorily. That is because of two things; first, I ride a little faster than the flow of traffic in California, a rate of travel that may or may not be in excess of the 70 mph maximum speed limit in the Golden State. Second, to preserve my hearing (which is perfect after 22 years of riding, thanks very much) I wear earplugs. That means most Bluetooth systems sound like a tinny murmuring in my ears at freeway speeds unless I take the earplugs out and ride under 60 mph. So the BT sets are of little value unless I’m just running errands around town.
That’s what I was expecting when Cardo Systems sent me its latest product, the Scala Rider G4 Powerset. It’s an incredibly powerful bit of hardware, as it has a Bluetooth radio, an FM radio and a two-way intercom system. Included in the kit are two headsets (paired at the factory), all the mounting hardware you need, instructions and two chargers. It’s pretty light at just four ounces, and attaches to your helmet in minutes. Battery life is a claimed 13 hours of talk time and a week of standby. It’s fully charged in three hours, and you can use a cigarette lighter or USB port to juice it up.
Once you have it mounted and charged, you have to figure out how to use it, and that’s one of the G4’s weaknesses. It’s not as intuitive as some other products, and some of the buttons don’t deliver the solid feel and positive feedback you need for this kind of thing. My advice is to practice using it off the motorcycle for a while until you really figure it out.
Once you do, you’ll discover a blizzard of functionality. It paired quickly and easily with my iPhone 4 (the G4 is set up for the A2DP/AVRCP protocol, which means you can use voice dialing, stream audio and perform other functions from your smart phone). The paired units work as soon as they sense they’re in range of each other, and the range is impressive—Cardo claims a full mile, though I didn’t really test it. A half mile is no problem, though. It will also pair with Bluetooth-equipped devices like a radar detector or GPS unit and you can even hold a three-way conference call with a person on a the phone and the person using a paired headset. Or you can pair it to two more headsets for a four-way conversation. And get this—if you see a cute girl (or guy) ride by with a G4, you can push a button and start talking to them. Everything mutes for phone or intercom conversations.
But the best part of the G4 is its audio capabilities. It’s equipped with automatic gain control, VOX (voice activation) and outstanding noise cancellation so that even with earplugs, going hmm-hmm mph on the freeway, on a naked bike, I could hear both podcasts (yes, I am an NPR nerd) and incoming phone calls with amazing clarity. There’s a caveat to this: the slim-fitting speaker must be placed so their centers are exactly over your ear canals, and the microphone must be right in front of your lips (both a boom version for open-face and smaller wired mic for full-faces are available, though I can wear the boom mic with all my full-facers) or it will seem just as crappy as lesser BT headsets. However, if you do get it right it’s like that scene in The Miracle Worker when young Helen Keller realizes there’s a whole new world out there to explore.
It’s not perfect. It is hard to figure out how to use, the FM radio isn’t the best, and I’ve had limited success with voice dialing (“Call Dirck Edge!” “Calling Eric Hedge.” “No, dammit! I said Dirck Edge!” “Calling Nostad Ismedridge.” “I will kill you!” “Calling Ira Pillview.”). But I’ve been able to have phone conversations at high speeds, and the callers actually don’t know I’m riding a motorcycle. Cardo has a solid product here, if a spendy one: the PowerSet is $490, and the solo setup is $296.
For more info head to your local motorcycle dealer or go to the Cardo website.