16 March 2012

Gear: Evolution of my sound system

My Bike to Bike Integrated Audio System Solution.

It started not long after I started commuting.  The song of the v-twin and wind just wasn't enough as I navigated through LA traffic.  My first system was simple:  Dollar store headphones that I inserted into my helmet plugged into my no skip cd player that was a leftover from when I owned my Jeep.  That worked well enough until the need to talk to other riders arose while I planned a cross country trip.   Most of the solutions back then cost multiple hundred dollars and weren't what I needed since I only figured I'd use it during the three week trip.
Motocomm MC-552
Enter the Motocomm.  It's a cable based system that has helmet speakers, Push-to-Talk (PTT), and connects to your choice of walkie talkie.  In addition they offered a music cable so I could plug in my cd player.  I split the costs of the Motorola Talkabout walkie talkies with the lady I was doing the cross country ride and bought the full face Motocomm unit.  I was able to put cords and radio in my tank bag, with just the mute button for the music and the handlebar PTT switch sticking out.  I turned out the lady I was riding with had hearing problems and couldn't hear the walkie talkies so we didn't even use it on the trip!  After that, I used it mainly to listen to music.

Later I switched from the cd player to the mp3 player and found the volume reduced so I added a boostaroo.  I was pretty content with the versatility of this system.  When I moved back home, I started riding with riders that used walkie talkies so I was able to finally use the comms.  I switched the handlebar PTT on the motocomm for a smaller unit that fit so much better on the handlebar grip.

When I switched from paper maps and instructions to the gps,  I simply added a splitter so that I could combine the signals from the mp3 player and my gps and kept on riding.  Later, I added a radar detector and used the belkin rockstar to combine all the signals.  That was okay except it didn't work really well with the boostaroo that I used to boost the mp3 player.  I needed a mixer that worked with the boostaroo instead of the rockstar where I could really only boost one audio stream.

To upgrade the mixer, I went the diy route and made the Altoids mixer.  That was the perfect solution until the Motocomm started failing piece by piece.  Motocomm always replaced the broken part but it was getting to be annoying.  In addition, the music adapter that works so well when riding alone didn't work that well when you need to hear the PTT alert.  Over the course of a couple of months, Cruzman started preaching the virtues of bluetooth comms.

I did a lot of research before relenting.  I didn't really want to lose the ability to link in with other riders like we could with the walkie talkies.  Bluetooth systems are proprietary and only work with the same brand system.  In addition, many of them only allow you to have one or two other connections besides the audio stream.  The other difference between using the walkie talkie based system and going to bluetooth is no more group chat.  With bluetooth, you can only talk on one channel at a time.  That and it's helmet mounted rather than having the control on the tank bag or handlebar so that's a lot longer searching for the right button to press.

Shark SHKLXMBT688IL Bluetooth Interphone
In the end, Cruzman and I decided to go the economic route rather than follow the motorcyclist herd.  We chose the Shark Multi Interphone system.  For a "cheap" bluetooth comm, it has some features the big brands didn't like 6 rider connection and a way to connect music via a cable.  It's small and didn't add any turbulence to the helmet.  It's waterproof.  It's under half the price of the popular ones for two sets!

You know how much I like inexpensive stuff that works.  I convinced Cruzman to take a chance on the cheap set arguing it'd be a good way to see what features we liked and didn't like without having to spend a lot of money on something we might find lacking.  If the cheap system was lacking something it'd be because it was cheap.

I hated to lose the Motocomm speakers for an unknown system that had been maligned on most of the sites that mentioned it but for the price I was willing to take the chance.  It'd be nice not to be tethered to the bike too.  To integrate my audio, I got a bluetooth transmitter.  It replaced the Motocomm music adapter so I didn't need to use the audio cable that comes with the kit.

Shark Interphone attached to my Xpeed Phoenix 706 helmet
Another thing I considered was the unknown battery life on the headsets.  I knew with the walkie talkies, as long as I had batteries, I could talk.  Switching to a system that needed charging meant possibly losing communication on longer rides because of dead batteries.  On the first ride, this was proven not to be much of an issue.  The battery life on the Shark Interphone is great; they usually last around 8 hours.  It's a little less if we're talking rather than listening to music.  I discovered that with a battery powered emergency charger, I could still use it as long as I remembered to bring the charging cable.

The sound is pretty good but I wouldn't call it great.  One of our units makes a tinny sound (Cruzman really should have sent it in for a replacement) that can get annoying.  Sometimes it takes a while for the  components to mate but it's a minor inconvenience.  They communicate over a decent range too, I'd guess up to half a mile or more.  About the same as with the Walkies but with better sound.

One thing going to bluetooth added to my system was integrating the cell phone.  I can now connect my cell phone and receive or make calls via the headset.   I'm still undecided on this feature.  No matter what anyone says, talking on the phone and riding/driving is distracting.  Actually, sometimes talking with Cruzman and riding is distracting.  It's a nice feature to have when you're eating up miles on the boring interstate but I don't like using it on surface streets and try to keep those conversations limited.

The Interphone system is a vast improvement over the Motocomm when it comes to bike to bike communicating.  I can hear Cruzman clearly and the loss of PTT is great.  When I want to talk, I push the talk button and wait.  A few seconds later, Cruzman is there.  No more pressing a button then waving hysterically to get his attention so he can switch from music to talk mode.  At first, the loss of PTT wasn't so good because with the open mic I could hear Cruzman's Akraphobic over my Yoshimura muffler.  I fixed that by getting the GPR Speed Cone.  Now both mufflers sound about the same.

I've been told that no one can tell that I'm on the bike when I'm on a phone call either.  The Interphone automatically connects incoming calls after a certain number of rings.  If you don't want to take the call, simply press the phone button.  We were so pleased with our new bike to bike system, we ordered a second set so that we can always have a charged one available.  I haven't found anything on this system that I wish it didn't do or would.  I'd like the versatility of using walkie talkies but I haven't needed that yet.  I guess that's a problem I didn't really have.

The helmet speakers are just as good as the Motocomm's so I don't miss those either.  Could they be better?  Probably.  If they were, the price would probably be more thus making this unit not really worth it.  I think I can diy a speaker upgrade but I'm not certain it's worth it.

For a value-based system, the Shark Interphone is an excellent choice.  It has the same features as the popular brands at a much lower price point.  The drawback with any bluetooth comm system is it is restricted to communicating with same brand systems.

Adding bluetooth interphone removed the wire tether to the bike by giving me a wireless interface with my audio components.  Using the bluetooth transmitter, mixer, and amplifier I have combined the three devices I used into one audio channel on the headset.  In addition to the audio only channel, I have added the ability to communicate via cell phone to my bike to bike comm system.  I hope to get the same longevity out of it as I did with the Motocomm it replaced.  The Motocomm still works as a value based bike to bike integrated audio system but my wants changed.

Thanks for reading,
patrice, theWolfTamer

Putting helmet speakers in helmet
Attached Interphone via clip

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