The differences you need to know for your Wing.
Do you remember the Bad Old Days of two-up motorcycle touring? I’m speaking of the days prior to two-wheel audio systems when hand signals and hollering were considered to be “intercom.” Music, cell phones, radar detectors, GPS guidance? Forget about it! Then came the 55 MPH national speed limit, when some creative individuals began grafting miniature 23-channel CB radios into their Vetter Windjammer fairings, using hand-held microphones and listening over the radio’s small, integral speaker. What’s your 20, good buddy? There’s a County Mountie collecting green stamps back at mile 250! Getting even more creative, some adapted a set of earbuds to the CB and wore them inside the helmet to improve audio at higher speeds and in windy conditions. But that’s usually as creative as it got. Intercom and bike-to-bike communication was still hand signals and hollering. And that was fine, as long as most long distance riding was without passenger or riding buddy.
Other folks who had more electrical knowledge, skills and determination, and who often rode in groups and with passengers, started devising ways to integrate small speakers and microphones into their helmets in the same fashion as military aviator helmets. And naturally, the helmets’ electronics were connected to the audio devices by wires. Though available helmet headsets and the devices to which they connect have become far more complex, useful and varied, the basic concept of speakers and microphone integrated into a helmet and connected to the bike’s audio devices by wire had remained virtually unchanged until recently. What options do we have today?
Those of us who’ve been riding audio-equipped bikes for many years grew up with wired headsets. We’re familiar and comfortable with them, and that alone could cause us to reject newer technology. Aside from that issue, wired headsets simply plug into the front and/or rear audio plugs on our luxury touring bikes with no need to link transmitters. Any OEM device operated by the bike’s audio controls such as an intercom, stereo or CB, can be heard and even operated by both rider and passenger.
Though special integration products may be required, aftermarket products such as cell phones and radar detectors may be wired into the audio system to function as if the bike were originally equipped with them. Several companies manufacture wired headsets in varying price and quality levels, and repair parts are usually easy to come by.
With the advent of Bluetooth technology, we’ve seen a good number of firms developing wireless headsets for use in motorcycle helmets. Early attempts were pretty primitive, with the systems being able to pair (link) with only one device at a time, and with no intercom capability other than a wired connection to the passenger’s helmet. Other Bluetooth systems were designed around bike-to-bike or rider-to-passenger communication with no ability to connect to other devices, assuming one could even find Bluetooth-enabled devices that were compatible.
Now, however, many GPS units and other mobile electronics are either Bluetooth enabled or can be made so by plugging a “dongle” into the device’s 3.5mm headset output jack, and the headsets themselves can pair to each other as well as to several other devices all at the same time. As opposed to wired headsets, repair parts for Bluetooth units are usually not sold separately, and repair services (with the exception of J&M) are generally not available. So yes — you get the convenience of not having connection cords swinging around and scuffing the paint. But suffer an electronic failure on the road, and you’re dead in the water. Worse, if the unit is out of warranty, you’ll likely need to purchase a new one.
Decisions, Decisions …
So which should we choose when considering a new helmet headset for use on a bike equipped with factory-installed audio system — wired or wireless? We’ve found no one-size-fits-all answer to that question other than “it depends.”
Wired headsets require no internal power source, while Bluetooth units contain rechargeable batteries that have a useful life of 10 to 15 hours between charges. Have you ever taken a trip and found on arrival at your destination that you’d forgotten to pack the charger for either your cell phone or laptop? Well, now you’d have one more thing to remember. A six-day round trip to and from Wing Ding could get very frustrating after the first day of riding with no way to recharge the headsets. If using wired headsets, you’d likely be set for an emergency as long as you included at least one set of spare connection cords. We think keeping a spare set in the trunk at all times is a good idea (which, admittedly, you could do with a Bluetooth charger as well).
Is there a distinction in audio quality between Wired and Bluetooth? Yes, there’s a difference between different brands of headsets, and also between models within the same brand. Some are better at voice reproduction, while others excel at both voice and music. But speaking generally, our experience has been that wired headsets have better fidelity than wired ones.
What about a Bluetooth connection to a luxury bike’s factory audio system? Remember, these systems aren’t Bluetooth enabled. So one would need to purchase special devices to enable the system and allow pairing it with the headset as well as integrating aftermarket devices into the factory audio system. This all comes at significant cost. Once paired, some systems will link up with the headsets again automatically each time the bike is started, while others must be re-linked at each engine start – a frustrating and time-consuming exercise.
In the end, the decision may depend on how badly one wants to get rid of the attachment cords and how much one is willing to tolerate in terms of extra expense, installation effort and learning to use a new and unfamiliar technology. However, as Bluetooth continues to get better, watch for more improvements on the horizon.
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