How To Choose The Best Motorcycle Intercom For You



Without a motorcycle intercom, motorcycle riding is a solitary experience. When you're riding alone it's a good way to clear your head or get your thoughts together. But if you've got a passenger, or you're riding with another biker, inevitably you'll want to talk to them. Motorcycle intercom systems that mount in your helmet let you do that.

The problem is that there are so many to choose from in such a wide price range. It's hard to decide which one to choose. And given that motorcycle intercoms have to work in an extremely difficult environment, choosing the right one can make the difference between enjoying your new purchase or hating it. This motorcycle intercom review will hopefully make your decision easier.

Let's start with a broad overview of the types of motorcycle intercoms available.

Acoustic Motorcycle Intercom

The most basic form of motorcycle intercom is the acoustic intercom. By acoustic I mean that it doesn't use electronics at all. It just uses hollow tubes that your voice travels through. They're like the old ships where the captain yells down a tube to the engine room to tell them to "give it more steam."

These systems have rubber-tipped tubes that insert in your ear the same way an earplug would. There is also a mouthpiece tube for you to talk into and all the tubes connect into a junction box.

One of the positives is that there are no batteries or electronics to mess with. That makes them very dependable. However, there is no amplification which means there is no way to adjust the volume or filter out wind noise. So at higher speeds, it will be more difficult to hear. Another problem is that some people find the earplugs uncomfortable in their ears for long periods.

Obviously these acoustic intercoms only work for rider-to-passenger and not bike-to-bike.wired motorcycle intercom

Wired Motorcycle Intercom

The next step up is wired intercoms. These systems have wires that run from the rider and passenger into a central control box that houses the electronics and battery.

Just like the acoustic intercom, with a wired system you don't have to worry about any external interference like you do with wireless technologies, unless you add a radio handheld communicator for bike-to-bike talking to your system. Some wired units let you plug in an FRS/GMRS radio, which is described in the wireless technology section below. The radio has to have voice activation for it to work.

One of the issues some people have is that the wiring can be a little bit of a pain. Every time you and a passenger get on and off the bike you have to remember to unplug the units. Depending on how you have it set up, this could be two or three plugs.

Wireless Intercom Technology

There are four types of radio technologies used in the U.S. for motorcycle intercoms. They are GMRS, FRS, FM, and Bluetooth (which may use other technologies to extend range).

Frequency Modulation (FM) radio is similar to the FM radio you listen to, but for motorcycle intercoms a narrower frequency is used. Like FM radio, these systems can produce clear sound, as long as the distance between them isn't too great. FM radio works best when there are no obstructions such as hills between the transmitter and receiver. If long range is the most important feature, then GMRS intercoms will provide better performance.

The Family Radio Service (FRS) and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) are the modern equivalents to the old walkie talkies you may have had when you were a kid. FRS radios typically have a maximum range of two miles with few obstructions in between, while GRMS radios communicate up to several miles. Like FM, these are public frequencies so other people can hear your conversations and vice versa. In some heavily populated areas these FRS/GRMS radios are heavily used, while out on the open road you should have fairly private conversations.

One nice thing with the FRS and GMRS radios is that you can go to your local discount store and purchase a cheap handheld radio that will communicate with these units. If someone were following you in a car, or they had a wired motorcycle intercom system that lets them plug in an FRS/GMRS handheld radio, they can communicate with you. The downside of this was just mentioned in that there are millions of these radios out there so in heavily populated areas you'll pick up lots of other transmissions.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is the latest technology to hit motorcycle intercoms. Not only can these systems communicate totally wirelessly from rider to passenger, they can be used to communicate from bike to bike. Although with these systems the range is usually not in miles, it is in hundreds of feet. Since you are likely riding close to your buddies, this is not usually a problem. Range is getting longer as manufacturers use other technologies to boost how far the signal carries.Bluetooth motorcycle intercom

What may be called a Bluetooth intercom may only be using Bluetooth to communicate to another Bluetooth device like a telephone.  For bike-to-bike communication they often use other technology like GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service), which is a two-way radio group of frequencies, or CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which is the same technology some cell phone carriers use. Systems that actually use the Bluetooth standard would have a much shorter range since the technology is only designed for short-range communication. But with these other technologies you can get a half-mile or even more distance in open conditions.

One thing you'll find about Bluetooth intercoms is that they come with a whole lot of features packed into a tiny housing.  In addition to intercom capability between driver to rider, or other bikers, they let you connect to cell phones, GPS devices, and music players like an mp3 or iPOD.   While all those features sound nice, they can make the intercom difficult to use and they may not work as well as you like.  If you look at the reviews on the Internet about these devices, one of the top complaints is volume. When you get up to higher speeds they can be difficult to hear. The noise cancellation does a pretty good job of removing wind noise, but that same cancellation may be working so hard to reduce the high noise level, it won't let the intercom get very loud. I've used some of these intercom on a bike without any sort of windshield (in a helmet with a shield) and after about 40-45 miles per hour it gets pretty hard to hear. My kids sitting behind me have better hearing so they can still understand the communication just fine. For older drivers, they may be a problem if your bike doesn't have a windshield. Newer units are getting better all the time, so soon this problem will likely be resolved.

Another complaint is the controls. There are so many functions and only a few buttons to control them. Plus, you have to do it all by touch, which becomes very difficult if you are wearing gloves. Since you can't see what you're doing on the intercom, anytime you try to change a function, it becomes easy for you to put the unit in a state where you don't know what it's doing. At that point you almost have to pull over and take your helmet off so you can see what's going on. I've had times where I rendered my unit useless by trying to change a function while riding.

If you are buying these intercoms to listen to high-quality music you may as well just save your money. They just don't have the volume for that. You really shouldn't be listening to loud music while you're driving anyway if you want to be safe. If you just want hear some music, they may be fine for you. Just don't expect an iPod-like experience.

Cell phone connection may work fine for you as long as you aren't going so fast that the volume isn't sufficient for you to hear the conversation. But remember, the more functions you use on these intercoms, the more confused you can get on what button to push to get a function to work. I've found that these intercoms really work best at just being an intercom. If all you want to do is talk to a rider or fellow bikers, they work great at taking the solitude of riding away. If that's your favorite part of riding, then you may not want an intercom

Before you purchase a unit you need to identify how many riders you want to talk to. Lower cost units typically only communicate between two people. Newer units now can communicate with groups of 15 or more.

Motorcycle Helmet Intercom Features

Here are features to look for as you are shopping for an intercom to use with your motorcycle helmet:

  • If you may be riding in the rain, get a system that says it's waterproof and not just water resistant. Some riders will put a water resistant system in a plastic baggie and that works for them.
  • You can get systems that have a headset speaker for one ear or both ears. Installation and moving the intercom to another helmet is easier for systems with only one ear, but some people want to hear sound in both ears.
  • Most systems have voice activation of some kind to keep the headset quiet when no talking is occurring. This voice activation often has the ability to be disabled and a push-to-talk switch used instead.
  • Many intercoms have noise reduction capabilities with digital signal processing to help reduce the noise they pick up from the microphone. The faster you drive, or the windier it is, the more important this feature is.
  • If you want music, look for a system that has a built-in FM stereo radio tuner or an auxiliary stereo input for a Walkman, MP3, iPod, or satellite radio unit. You can also use this input to receive driving directions from a voice prompted GPS unit.
  • Some systems mount on your helmet, while others have capability to mount on your belt clip or bike. If the system is big and bulky, you may want the ability to mount it on your bike.
  • You can integrate some intercoms with cell phones so you can talk while you ride. They require special cables or you can get motorcycle intercoms that have Bluetooth capability so they connect to your Bluetooth-enabled phone wirelessly.

Once you find the right motorcycle intercom for you, it will really make your ride with other people much more enjoyable. You'll wonder how you got along without it. You typically get what you pay for when you buy motorcycle intercoms, but even a bad motorcycle intercom is better than none at all.

Below are two good choices for BlueTooth:

Sena Bluetooth Headset/Intercom

Scala Rider Cardo G4 Motorcycle Headset System

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