Bluetooth Communicator Review
Published: January 29, 2017; updated: March 10, 2017
After getting tired of Chatterbox V2 communicators constantly dying on me (I think I went through 5 in two years) and my Nady communicator experience not being much better, I decided to look around at other communication options. I came across this FreedConn bluetooth communicator for $93 with free Prime shipping and bought it.
In the following discussion I use the word "communicator" to refer to the communicator unit, and "intercom" to refer to the mode of operation where two communicators are talking to one another (the other modes that communicators can support are radio reception and phone calls).
Mic Boom And Speakers
Amazon has several Bluetooth communicators available. This particular communicator has one of the speakers permanently mounted on the microphone boom, whereas other communicators have both speakers loose. I wanted the speaker attached to the boom in order to be able to stuff the boom into the helmet more easily. Headsets on communicators are often glued into the helmet, in which case separate speakers and microphone boom would be preferable. However I do not want the speakers in my helmet when I am driving solo.
I tried this communicator with a GeForce SA2005 helmet and a RaceQuip SA2015 helmet. The RaceQuip SA2015 helmet has a much tighter fit, apparently this is generally the direction in which helmets are moving and a tighter fit is mandated by the SA2015 standard. I tried another SA2015 helmet (Bell possibly) and it was even tighter.
I had no trouble getting the loose speaker into the ear with an SA2005 helmet, however with an SA2015 helmet this became virtually impossible. Fit of the boom with the speaker into the SA2005 helmet was easy, for the SA2015 helmet it became annoyingly tight but doable. I usually put the helmet on first then put the comms gear in, but when I take the helmet off I pull it off with the comms gear still in the helmet. I'm thinking to try pre-setting the headset in the SA2015 helmet before I put the helmet on.
The communicators came with a bunch of hardware to attach them to the helmet. This includes a sticky/velcro mount and a mount that screws to the side of the helmet. So far I have used the sticky/velcro mount and surprisingly the velcro part is removable and reusable. I "store" one of the velcro strips on my helmet between events and this gets attached to the students' helmets during the events.
My intention with buying this particular communicator was to cut off the loose speakers on both headsets and retain a single speaker on the mic boom. I did the first two events on the communicators as they came with both speakers on each headset, and the third event with one speaker per headset.
The wire from communicator to the fixed headset is very short. This is good if the headset is to be permanently installed in a helmet, but annoying otherwise. I wish that wire was maybe 1.5-2x as long as it is.
The controls on this communicator are terrible, and I mean that. However, I eventually discovered that they do not need to be used most of the time, which makes their terrible usability largely a non-issue.
The easy way: once two communicators are paired, the procedure for getting them ready for an on-track session is as follows:
- Turn each communicator on.
- Wait 5 seconds.
- If the rising chime is heard, communicators automatically entered the intercom mode and are ready to use.
- If the rising chime is not heard after 5 seconds, push the everything button on either communicator (just one, not both) and hold it down for about 2 seconds. The unit will beep once. Wait 5 more seconds for the two communicators to sync up and enter the intercom mode with the corresponding rising chime sound.
- If communicators are still not in intercom mode, power cycle one of the communicators and repeat the process.
This process can be performed entirely from one communicator - I did it from mine, for obvious reasons. There is high success rate for the communicators syncing and entering intercom mode on the first attempt. I would say once out of every 4-5 starts I had to power cycle an intercom, which again I could do on my unit rather than the student's.
The hard way: I am not sure pressing buttons actually gets a communicator into the intercom mode. I think regardless of button presses both communicators need to sync on their own, which explains why trying to get the communicators into intercom mode by pressing the everything button does not work much of the time. I've left my previous approach below for historical reasons:
There is a single push button that controls all intercom-related functionality sans volume, and being a push button it has no state. This button does all of the following:
- Turns communicator on;
- Puts communicator in intercom mode;
- Turns off intercom mode;
- Turns communicator off.
Which function is performed depends on how long the button is held down for and what state the unit is in at the moment. The feedback is primarily auditory - the headset beeps one way or another depending on what mode transition is happening. There is a light on the side of the communicator but it seems useless for distinguishing which mode the communicator is in (though one can tell if the communicator is on or off). The bottom line is that it is between difficult and impossible to operate the student's communicator when they have the headset in their helmet - there is no visual feedback when their communicator changes modes or turns itself on and off.
The state transitions seem to depend on whether a communicator is paired and in intercom mode at the time. I found it impossible to bring a communicator out of and into the intercom mode if the unit is already on. Basically, the procedure I am using is now as follows:
- Turn both communicators off.
- Turn my communicator on.
- Turn student's communicator on.
- Put my communicator in intercom mode.
- Put student's communicator in intercom mode.
The reason I operate on my communicator first is I need to hold the communicator button down for a certain amount of time to do each step and the beeps tell me how long I need to hold it down for, then I try to reproduce the same duration on the student's communicator without any indicators of success. Most of the time this procedure works, but when it does not we tend to get stuck with communicators not in intercom mode. If one of the communicators starts turned on it seems impossible to get them both into the intercom mode, or to turn them both off. It's weird and getting increasingly aggravating.
Having separate power and intercom buttons, or a light indicating intercom mode, would yield a huge improvement in usability for this communicator.
There is intermittent echo with these communicators. Whether the echo happens or not seems to depend on how the headsets are positioned. I have not yet figured out the exact dependency.
With two speakers per headset sound quality was very good, volume level was good, and speed was clear.
With one speaker per headset volume seemingly decreased and I could not figure out how to increase it back at the track. Did I mention the controls were terrible? My student said he could hear me but I had a hard time hearing him.
At one of the events I did lead-follow with my student while using this communicator.
Sound quality remained the same at distances typically encountered in lead-follow situations (50-250 ft separation) as it was when we were sitting in the car together. There were no issues with interference or noise.
The communicator supports pairing three units together, for a one instructor + two students setup. I have not tried this yet because I only have two units.
I have used handheld radios in a lead-follow situation once and this communicator is far superior to handheld radios due to sound quality as well as two-way communication. Handheld radios need to have a button pressed to speak which results in the only the instructor speaking on track, whereas with this bluetooth communicator I was able to trivially have a conversation going with my student.
Battery life seems very good. At least when the communicators are new they hold the charge for a long time. I had no issues using the communicators the entire event (probably 3-4 hours of use per weekend).
I did manage to run my student's communicator out of battery by keeping the unit on the entire two days (8:30 am-5:30 pm). At around 2 pm on Sunday the battery was dead and required charging. I turned my communicator off when not using it and the battery in mine was still ok. It was also unusually cold this weekend, with ambient temperatures in the high 40s Fahrenheit. Therefore it seems that the communicator is good for maybe 10-14 hours of continuous use depending on how cold it is.
If the communicator is charged every night, it should be fine to leave it on the entire day up to 10 hours. If the communicator is to be used over a 2 or 3 day weekend without charging, it should be turned off between track sessions to make the battery last the entire event.
The headset uses the same USB-like connector that the communicator uses for charging. This seems to be not a standard USB connector although I've seen it on Replay XD cameras making it not completely proprietary. In any event the connector difference means none of the Chatterbox or Nady headsets are directly usable with this Bluetooth communicator.
The other Bluetooth communicator seem to use the same USB-like connector, leading me to think that their headsets might interchange with the headsets on this communicator.
Since I cut one of the speakers off on each headset I looked at the wires. The wires are very thin and not particularly easy to handle. From a quick look I could not even see what separated + and - wires.
It's too early for me to comment on the communicator's durability. So far I have had it for 3 months, in which time I used it at 14 track days. To date the sound quality has stayed the same which is encouraging - I've had Chatterboxes degrade well within 14 track days of putting them into service.
As with any communicator I taped the wires to the microphone boom with electrical tape. Both inserting and removing the headsets, be that for me or for my student, involves handling the plastic boom or the wires taped to it. It would take deliberate effort to pull on wires rather than on the boom.
I rate this communicator as follows:
- Sound quality: 5/5 with both ears, 4/5 with one ear
- Controls: 4/5 once you figure out how to make the communicator enter the intercom mode automatically, 3/5 otherwise
- Battery life: 5/5
- Range, lead-follow suitability: 5/5
- Durability: TBD.
Overall: 4/5. It's a good unit, and I would take it over Chatterboxes any day so far.
Since I started leaving the students' communicator on all day, the students have taken 100% of their communicator management workload upon themselves. This means they come to pick me up with their communicator in their helmet, already turned on and ready to go. I just need to get my communicator into my helmet, turn it on and push the button to get it into the intercom mode. No messing with any wires on the student side, no touching the student's headset. When the session is over I just pop out of the car, again no need to get the student's headset or separate the wires from the control box or anything like that. It's great.