As a motorcycle rider and music lover that enjoys long hours and lots of miles in the saddle, preferably heading away From civilization, I’ll have to admit that I’ve always been frustrated with one aspect of riding: Listening to music while under way. So much so that I DIYed a pair of old headphones and a microphone into my helmet when I first started touring so I could enjoy some tunes (on cassettes!) and chat with other riders and drivers via, yes, CB radio, the wireless party chat channel (40 of them, really) of the era. Yes, I started riding a while ago.
Sure, even then you could get motorcycles (and helmets) that had intercoms, CB radios, and sound systems built in, but those options were all in a budgetary dreamland at the time, and I was pretty handy with a soldering iron. In truth, my Radio Shacked helmet sounded good and worked pretty well – until it rained. Then, not so much. Of course, things have changed since then.
CB radios have pretty much disappeared from the riding landscape today (but not entirely) and on-bike audio systems have evolved and improved, mostly in how much volume they can create. And like so many techie things, in-helmet comms systems have been recently revolutionized by battery tech advances and, of course, the addition of smart phones. Several years ago, I installed a $339 Cardo Packtalk Bold into my AGV helmet, and joined the modern age. Now, Cardo has expanded its lineup with the more affordable FREECOM series, and I recently upgraded my Bell X-9 Adventure dual-sport MIPS helmet with the $269 FREECOM 4X.
The Freecom’s “4X” refers to the number of riders with other intercom units that can chat at once on Cardo’s new “Live Intercom” feature. There is also a “2X” model. My experience with the Packtalk Bold has been good over the years, and the Freecom will communicate with it as well, seeing how they’re all in the family. If a rider gets out of range (Cardo claims a 1.2km/0.75 mile range under optimal conditions), the new Live Intercom system will automatically reconnect to their Freecom unit once it’s back in range. With the older Bold and other systems, a button push was required, which means taking a hand off the bars while riding. The auto-connect feature is a definite improvement and worked seamlessly in my tests. Cardo says the Freecoms will also connect with non-Cardo intercoms and capable GPS devices via Bluetooth, but I was not able to test that specific feature. However, as noted, it did connect easily with my old Cardo Packtalk Bold and my son and I had static-free conversations while cruising around the area. Phone ops also had better-than-expected audio quality.
Some other upgrades: The Freecoms will update firmware over the air via the Cado Connect app, and it uses a USB-C connector for quick charging. Cardo says battery life is 13 hours, and despite some long days in the saddle, I never ran it all the way down. It’s also small, very light, and waterproof. 40mm in-helmet speakers from JBL bring the noise, and sound quality is good, with auto-volume leveling as an option in the app. There’s also a built-in FM radio.
Phone ops work as they always have, and in keeping with the keep-your-hands-on-the-handlebars safety theme, voice commands also operate the Freecom, activated by saying “hey Cardo.” I found the voice recognition to be simple, consistent and reliable, with few repeats needed even when highway riding with a lot of wind noise. The system will also transfer commands to your phone’s digital assistant (in my case, Apple’s Siri) just by calling out the usual “hey Siri” command. In a pinch, I was able to have Siri read and then send a text message while I was riding, all hands free and with no phone screen visible. As a matter of safety, I do not mount my phone to my handlebars, which is why I appreciate the simplicity and quick response of the Cardo voice commands system, which is built into the Cardo units and does not rely on an internet connection like Siri does. It always works, even way off the cell grid.
The Cardo Freecom 4X performed to expectations and provided hours of sing-alongs and phone ops as I toured around Eastern Oregon recently. Sound quality is good with deep bass, but wind noise can still drown out as much of the audio goodness as speeds increase, a common issue for helmet comms systems no matter the brand. I tried using the Freecom with earplugs in and it’s possible, but as you can imagine, the tonal quality of the music playback was poor through the earplugs. Using less-restrictive earplugs might also do the trick for those seeking a more quiet ride with music.
Overall I found the Freecom 4X to be another solid offering from Cardo, and it’s good to see prices for this kind of tech continue to drop while feature sets and performance improve. I don’t have many complaints except to say the small volume wheel on the Freecom was a bit too easy to push-click, which would stop the music and necessitate another click to restart it. The Packtalk Bold uses a different kind of volume control that is easier to use with gloves on and does not have a “click” control, so you can be pretty rough on it.
If you use wired earbuds (not the wireless types like AirPods) to listen to music while riding, the Cardo system does allow you to plug them into the wiring harness interface since it uses a standard 1/8-inch headphone jack. I did this a few times with good success, but ambient sound awareness is greatly reduced, so it’s your call on the safety vs. sound equation. Usually, I just relied on the JBL drivers to do their job. It sure beat trying to find parts at a Radio Shack these days.