Friday, April 27, 2012

Motorcycle Intercoms - 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.

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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

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 requires 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. There are also wired intercoms that enable you to plug into a handheld Citizens Band (CB) radio that has voice activation.

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. Also GMRS radios require an FCC license for legal use.

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 not in miles, it is in hundreds of feet. Since you are likely riding close to your buddies, this is not usually a problem. Although, range can be as much as 800 to 1600 feet.

The Bluetooth range limitation actually works as an advantage since it limits the amount of outside interference you'll get. Also, since you must program two units to work together, you won't pick up conversations from other people with Bluetooth devices...and they won't be able to hear you. You won't have to worry about your conversations listened to by anyone else.

If you want Bluetooth wireless communication there is one thing to watch for. Some units that say they are Bluetooth use FRS or GMRS to communicate bike-to-bike and the Bluetooth is just used to communicate with a Bluetooth enabled cell phone or other device.

Bluetooth intercoms also usually have some other features you won't find on other types of intercoms such as:
Integrate with Bluetooth enabled cell phones and automatically answer calls totally hands free. Enjoy your favorite stereo music from your A2DP enabled cell phone or MP3 player Listen to the audio navigation message from your Bluetooth enabled GPS.

Some Bluetooth intercoms only have one ear speaker while others have two.

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.

Motorcycle Intercoms - How to Choose the Best Motorcycle Intercom For You

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