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Cycle Intercoms

imageFor a number of years now my wife and I have been using a cycle intercom system to communicate to each other whilst touring. They have caused some interest, as on several occasions we have been stopped by people asking us about them and where they could get them. The most notable was in Finland, miles from anywhere, when we were stopped and interviewed by a Japanese TV crew! We have had a few strange looks and a few 'Mickey' takes, but they have been very useful for the following reasons:

  1. I tend to be a little bit faster than my wife and therefore I'm always a little way ahead. My wife was always worrying that she might lose me if I got too far away and with the radios she can easily tell me to slow down or stop if she has lost sight of me.
  2. Many a time we would see something and wish to make a comment, but had to wait until we stopped. But by then you had either forgotten what it was or the bird had flown away! With the radios you can chat about the scenery, point things out and generally be sociable.
  3. They are useful for giving directions especially in towns and cities.
  4. They are useful for warnings! - "Stopped at traffic lights, wait for me", "Watch out for the mad driver, potholes, loose sand coming up" etc..

The one thing you must remember with cycle intercoms, don't rely on them as an absolute means of communication! It is very easy to get out of range with each other! The range of cycle intercoms can be considerably reduced by you being in a built up or hilly area and when the batteries start to get low.

When considering a cycle intercom system please take note that wearing ear buds in both ears is potentially dangerous and can be illegal in some countries as it stops you from hearing other road noises such as approaching traffic, emergency vehicle sirens and warning hoots from other road users.

There are now two types of system that you can you use as cycle intercoms, Bluetooth intercoms and PMR radio intercoms. We shall try and explain their advantages and disadvantages comparing the TTi PMR radios and headsets we have used with the Vertix Velo Bluetooth intercom we are currently using (read our Vertix Velo review here):

Intercom Advantages Disadvantages
Bluetooth
  • The Noise Filtering Voice-activated Mic of the Velo is far better than the VOX on PMR radios.
  • They can be paired to a smartphone to listen to music or receive phone calls.
  • The system is fitted on the helmet so there are no wires to disconnect when getting off or on your bike.
  • The off the ear speakers are more comfortable as they don't touch the ears.
  • They use two speakers so there is a better sound but you still can hear other sounds around you.
  • Bluetooth has a small range 500m and works best with good line of sight to the other rider. This can be increased to 1.5km if pairing 4 riders together.
  • It makes your helmet slightly heavier and can create an in balance to you helmet if mounted on the rear of the helmet.
PMR radio
  • A PMR radio and headset set can work out slightly cheaper than the Bluetooth sets.
  • The range is much greater than Bluetooth at up to 2km
  • The radio has to be carried in a pocket or bar bag.
  • They need a wired headset which needs to be disconnected or reconnected when getting on or off your bike or when taking your helmet off.
  • The headsets only use a single ear speaker.
  • The headsets are not that comfortable to wear over long periods
  • There is no communication with a smartphone.

Bluetooth

There are a variety of Bluetooth cycle intercoms available now on the market. Most of them are attached to helmets and some are integrated into the helmet itself. Listed below are some of the Bluetooth intercoms we know about. The only one we have tried so far is the Vertix Velo (you can read our review here):

Attached to helmets

Integrated helmets

Radios

The radios we use are PMR446 radios (Personal Mobile Radios) working on 8 Frequencies around 446MHz. These are licence free and can be used in most Europeans countries with some exceptions, you can get a full list of the countries that you can use them in on the European Radiocommunications Office web site, you will need to search for 'PMR446'. They have a range of about 5 - 2km and are 'Press to Talk' or VOX operated. As long as you are all operating on the same frequency then you can have as many sets communicating with each other in a group as you like.

We used to use the VOX (voice activation system) on our radios, until a new 'Press to Talk' headset was introduced. There are advantages and Disadvantages to both operating systems:

VOX

Advantages

  1. It is convenient to use, you just speak into the microphone to transmit, no buttons to press.
  2. Radio is carried in your pocket, when you get off your bike the radio and you are together.
  3. No wires to disconnect that connect you to the bike.

Disadvantages

  1. In heavy traffic the VOX system was constantly being switched on by the noise of passing cars. This got to be a bit irritating at times, as you can't transmit while a car is passing the other person. If you want to use VOX it is best to try and get a radio with variable 'mic' sensitivity, although setting the sensitivity is still a compromise. Do you decrease the sensitivity to get rid of the car noise and then have to shout to activate the VOX or do you increase the sensitivity to be more discrete and then put up with some traffic noise.
  2. If it was hilly terrain often one of us would start panting and all the other one heard was heavy breathing!
  3. Due to the VOX, the radios were transmitting a lot of the time when we didn't want them to, this meant that we got through a lot of batteries. Since we have moved to the 'Press to Talk' headsets the batteries are lasting much longer.

Press to Talk

Using the 'Press to Talk' buttons on the PMR radios themselves whilst cycling is impractica and potentially dangerous. An alternative is to use a 'Press to Talk' headset such as the KEP-800S Lightweight 'around-the-head' headset. You can read our review here.

Advantages

  1. No problem with road noise or panting keeping the mic open.
  2. Battery usage is much reduced due to the fact that it is only transmitting when you want it to.

Disadvantages

  1. You are attached to the bike by a wire, however there is a connector near the headset that you can easily detached or re-attached.
  2. You have to remember to press the button to transmit.

PMR Radios

TTI PMR RadioThere are various makes of PMR radios on the market now, you will need to check the specs carefully to make sure that they will meet your needs.

Manufactures include:

For a good list of PMR radios try Euro 446 and for an online forum try PMR446 News