As motorcyclists, we make compromises when we climb into all that gear and put our earplugs in, not least of which involves communication. Any rider who has frantically tried to get his gear off to answer a phone or struggled to tell his riding partner, “I’m ready for lunch, but not Mexican this time,” can attest to this. We at Motorcyclist recently dipped our toes into the communicator pool and were pleasantly surprised. Answer the phone in-helmet with the touch of a button? Warn your buddy that there’s gravel in the next turn? All for a few hundred bucks? We’re sold, so we sampled a handful of high-end systems to see what the market has to offer, listed in ascending order of our star ratings. (Also see our primer on communicator setup and testing in Street Savvy, pg. 86.)
Cardo Scala G9
Perhaps the most unassuming of the group, the Scala G9 struck a chord with us. The good first impression started with the fewest wires/cords required for installation, with the unit swiftly plugging into the helmet and attaching to the mount with one simple motion. Line-of-sight range was tested to over a mile, and while obstructed range is less than that it performs well under all conditions. The battery provided 13 hours of clear communication, and while there is no warning when the charge runs out, we appreciated the simplicity of use. Speaker housings have soft edges, meaning 13 hours in a helmet didn’t leave our cartilage frayed. Also impressive was the Scala’s ability to increase volume with ambient noise, resulting in less fiddling with volume controls and clear communication up to about 75 mph. In the end, the G9 has the best pro-to-con ratio of the group.
From a fit and finish standpoint, the Midland system is tough to beat. It’s sleek, compact, light, and a rubbery coating makes it feel durable. All of the other hardware is top-notch, too, with slick braided wires and the softest speakers of any system, making it the most comfortable. A finicky mounting bracket and plug system were our only gripes with the hardware. Unmarked buttons made mastering all of the commands tricky, but once we were familiar, the BT-NEXT was surprisingly intuitive to use. Range is adequate but not class leading, as sound quality starts to decrease at about a half-mile in line-of-sight. The Bluetooth connection to cell phones worked well and even has a voice-dial option, but requires diligence and studying the manual closely. The BT-NEXT is a good choice for tech-savvy, comfort-loving riders.
SENA shares some good qualities with its competitors in that it clips/plugs into the helmet swiftly (like the Scala G9), and it has large knob to control volume (like the Chatterbox X1 Slim). Downsides to the SMH include a mute function that is too-easily engaged by tapping the volume knob, weak range (less than a quarter mile, realistically), and finicky wires/connectors that unplug too readily. The speakers are some of the least comfortable of the group and can be difficult to mount inside the helmet, and despite our best effort, the mics picked up ambient engine noise from the other bike—meaning each of our testers always heard two engines. Overall, though, SENA’s system is quite good. Although only two buttons control the entire system, a well-written guide makes operation easy to learn, and good sound quality/volume made talking reasonable up to about 80 mph. The Bluetooth functionality was also commendable, making smartphone syncing and music streaming stress-free.
The stern British lady who explained each function of the Interphone might sound annoying, but it was actually quite helpful and got us chatting with less time spent buried in the manual. It’s downhill after that, unfortunately. The sound clarity is good but not great, and the volume didn’t go quite high enough for our plugged ears. Slightly unrefined hardware made the Interphone wires tricky to hide in the nooks of a helmet, and hard-edged speakers had our ears aching after a long day. We also struggled—and ultimately failed—to connect with as many riders as promised in the manual. Battery life was thoroughly acceptable at around 10 hours of usage time, but at the end of its charge the British woman constantly issued firm warnings that the system should soon be plugged in. Pipe down, lady, you’re killing the battery!
Chatterbox X1 Slim
The X1 Slim is Chatterbox’s (and this comparison’s) most expensive, highest powered, and longest range offering, and it excels at all of those things. It offers tremendous range (over a mile, even through obstructions), and loud, clear sound from the speakers. The X1 Slim also uses a simple knob for on/off and volume, which is refreshing compared to fiddling with small, rubber-clad buttons. However, the system works like a walkie-talkie, where only one person can talk at once, which means either using the voice-activation feature (VOX), or pushing a button when you want to speak. Neither option works well or is acceptable considering the competition offers the ability to speak and be heard at will, and even talk at the same time. The unit itself is also clunky and relatively heavy, so it won’t slip in a jeans pocket when the helmet is locked to a bike. It is undeniably more powerful than any other system we tested, but it constantly reminded us that it is an evolution of older tech rather than something new, which puts it at the bottom of our list.
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