It’s almost 20 years since a bright spark first incorporated Bluetooth technology into a bike helmet.
That move set motorcycling down a path towards constant communication while riding - chatting to passengers and riding companions, making and taking phone calls, listening to sat-nav directions or the radio or music from a phone.
The range of bike intercoms available today is huge and it can look pretty bewildering when trying to choose the right one for you.
Thankfully we can help you understand the differences and how they could enhance your biking life.
Mesh or Bluetooth
First, we have to explain one of the key features of intercoms - the way they communicate with each other. There are two different protocols, Bluetooth and mesh.
Mesh is superior in most ways. It has a longer range, allows bigger groups to talk to each other and maintains a web of individual connections between the units. With mesh intercoms, if one rider falls out of range the rest of the group stays connected. And when the rider who fell behind comes back into range it’s easier for them to reconnect (sometimes it happens automatically).
If a Bluetooth intercom has a shorter range, can only handle smaller groups and it’s harder to keep them connected, surely there’s no reason to buy one? Well, Bluetooth has one big strength… it’s more universal than mesh.
If you’ve got a Cardo intercom that uses mesh and your mate has a Sena intercom that runs mesh then you won’t be able to connect to each other through mesh. You’d need to use the units in Bluetooth mode and hope they can connect that way.
Most mesh-equipped units at the time of writing have Bluetooth capability as well, letting you choose which mode to run, but Sena recently released their first mesh-only units and more will probably follow.
Another benefit of Bluetooth-only units... they're cheaper and might cover all your needs anyway. And that leads us to…
What do you want it to do?
This is a fundamental question.
If you’re riding alone and only want to connect to your phone and perhaps a sat-nav then pretty much any intercom will cover your needs, whether it's Bluetooth-only, Mesh-only or has both.
A Bluetooth unit will also do the job if you want to talk to your pillion and/or one other rider on another bike, though you’ll need one with extended range for bike-to-bike duties.
In theory a Bluetooth unit can handle groups of up to four riders, but mesh will give you a more secure connection and also allow you to create groups of more than four riders.
If you want to connect with people who already own a device then find out what they have before buying your own. You want to know if their unit uses Bluetooth or mesh to connect to other intercoms, and what brand it is. If it’s mesh you’ll definitely need to buy the same brand to communicate with them. If it’s Bluetooth then you will be able to buy a different brand and connect with them one-to-one, but it’ll still be easier if you can get the same brand as they have.
One extra Cardo feature worth mentioning... users of Cardo's mesh intercoms can 'bridge' one Bluetooth-only Cardo unit into a conversation between mesh-equipped riders. It's best for a pillion sat behind the rider doing the bridging, or one who rides close to that bridging rider.
So is it Bluetooth or not?
How’s this for a potential confusion… the non-Bluetooth intercom that has Bluetooth capability?
Mesh-only comms don’t use Bluetooth to connect to other units, but they still use it to connect to your phone, so the word still appears on the spec sheet.
When using your phone, answering calls will be a matter of pressing the right button, unless you have voice control (see below).
For making calls you’re usually restricted to a selection of speed dial numbers programmed into your system through a linked phone app. It’s a bit easier if your unit allows…
If you have a unit with this function you can just say ‘hello’ and it’ll answer or something like ‘ignore’ will make the call go away. It’s much easier to remember than a button, or combination of buttons.
You can usually control the volume, skip or repeat music tracks and switch certain functions (like the radio) off using your voice, too.
If you’re buying Cardo, their Natural Voice function is intuitive to use right outta the box… if you’re American. If you’d rather make your voice commands in Blightyspeak then you’ll need to use the Cardo app to tell it you speak British English.
The list of things you can control by voice is pretty comprehensive, but many will also connect to your phone’s voice assistant - Siri for Apple or Google Assistant for Android - to give you even more control.
Several intercoms are equipped with radios, though radio itself is a bit old-hat now so think about whether you’ll really use one. Most radio stations are available over the internet so if you have a decent data package you can connect on your phone and listen to that through your intercom.
If you’re riding with others who share your taste in music, one of you can set the tunes going and then share them with everyone else. On better models, everyone gets the ability to skip tracks so at least you can use your veto when your mate Brian reveals his penchant for songs from the musicals.
Think about the conditions you’ll be riding in, and check the specification. Some units are listed as fully waterproof. Some say nothing at all about the level of weather protection. We experience very few problems with customers reporting water damage of intercoms, but if you expect to make long trips in the rain then the safest option is to buy one that’s listed as waterproof.
Most units have batteries that will easily stay the course for long journeys before needing a charge. Your phone is likely to drain sooner, so think about ways of getting that connected to your bike battery or an auxiliary pack to keep it going.
Will it fit?
This is probably the biggest question we are asked… will X intercom fit onto X helmet?
It only really comes down to two issues… whether there’s room for the speakers and if there's somewhere for the control module to attach to the outside of the helmet.
Most helmets now have recessed sections to accommodate speakers, but size varies, as does the diameter of speakers, and the recess in your lid might not be big enough to accept the speakers you want.
Entry-level intercoms tend to have smaller speakers, while more premium units have bigger speakers for better sound clarity.
As for fitting the exterior module, you’ll usually have a choice of two mounting techniques - clamp or sticky pad.
The clamp slides between the helmet’s shell and liner and is best suited to lids with a narrow rim.
If your lid has a wide rim then the clamp won’t fit around it, so you’ll need the self-adhesive mounting. This stick-on mount is also handy if your helmet’s sun visor switch runs along the left rim as the clamp may end up blocking the slide-switch.
The official route
A growing number of helmets are now designed to accept a manufacturer’s officially-approved intercom.
Buying one of these will always be the easiest option as there’s a clear mounting method already laid out for you. That’s great news if you’re happy to buy a helmet-specific or brand-specific unit.
The trouble can come when you don’t want the official intercom, as the mounting methods may interfere with attaching a universal system.
You will be able to find a way to get a universal intercom onto most of these helmets, but it will involve varying degrees of creativity and might be a hassle you’d rather avoid.
When it comes to installing for the first time, our advice is to familiarise yourself with the unit before putting it into the lid as it’ll be easier to learn the controls when you can see them.
Also, check your phone and any other devices will connect to the unit. At this stage, before installing into the lid, you can still return the device if there’s a compatibility issue. Once it’s installed, it’ll need to be faulty for you to return it.
When it comes to audio, size matters. The smallest speakers have a diameter of around 25mm and won’t offer the same sound clarity and volume as larger ones (though they are more likely to fit comfortably inside your lid).
The biggest of the current crop of speakers are the 45mm JBL units that come as standard in Cardo’s Packtalk Black or as an optional upgrade for other Cardo Packtalk units.
The JBL speakers in Cardo’s Packtalk units collect lots of praise from customers for their clarity and sound quality.
Sena, their big rivals, have since responded by partnering with Harmon Kardon for their top-spec speaker units, so the choices are improving all the time.
Most come with a choice of wired or boom microphones. The wired mic suits full-face helmets as it attaches by Velcro to the inside of the chinbar and then is connected to the main unit by wire.
The boom mic is for open-face and flipfront helmets as it’s connected to the main unit by a flexible bar that will stay in front of your mouth without a chinbar to support it. Make sure a kit you’re considering has the type of microphone you’ll need.
You’ll see lots about how you can have a range of up to one mile between intercoms, but even representatives of the companies making the claims are often at pains to say those distances are only possible in ideal circumstances.
We don’t often get to ride in those ideal conditions, instead facing winding tree-lined roads and residential areas with power lines and pylons that all affect the connection.
In real terms, if you’re riding with someone else and stay together then your connection should be solid. One has to fall a fair way back before it breaks on a modern mesh intercom - and even an old-school Bluetooth connection is still pretty good in one-to-one mode.
Something to bear in mind about your helmet - carbon-fibre interferes with the signals so if your shell is made from that you may have reduced range. We’ve used comms on carbon-shelled lids and it’s worked, but not as well as it does in a conventional fibre or plastic shell.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know how complicated a choice it can be. If you need further help on it, our customer support team have specialists who can help you get what you need. You can reach by clicking on the contact us link below, or using our live chat function. Follow this link to see our range of all motorcycle intercoms.