The sound of Silence…is frustrating.

helmet
What’s in your helmet?

Communication is everything when in a group ride. Be it via hand signals or some sort of COM unit, communication can be fun and great big help when trying to keep the group organized. And it’s also nice to share your thoughts on the ride or what you see with you your fellow riders.

While there are many options for communication through electronics, Sena, Uclear, Cardo, Cobra and a host of others. Most seemingly prefer Sena. My brothers and I were/are for the longest time Sena SMH-10 users.

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Sena SMH-10

Sitting comfortably at the bottom of the Sena barrel, the Sena SMH-10 is nothing if not reliable. It connects, it works and it’s sufficient for the basics of communication: Talk and Listen. Note that I did not use the word “clearly”.

I was given the opportunity to test and use the UClear AMP+ system and I was provided with 3 units for myself and my podcast co-hosts to use.

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UClear Amp+

My podcast, Motorcycle Men, had a group ride not long ago that took us on a 200 mile round trip through the countryside and mountains of New Jersey. There were only 4 of us and the 4th rider did not have a COM system. It was a great ride and this was our opportunity to put the UClear AMP Plus system through its paces. One starter note is that wewere all using the ear-buds.

Mounting is going to be different per device depending upon which one you go with. All Sena units clamp on to the helmet with a clam-shell style mount that requires a small Allen wrench. This limits your installation to one helmet per unit. The folks at UClear thought beyond this and figured you’d like to use your communication device on your snow mobile, your mountain bike, your jet ski or on your hardhat so you can communicate with anyone who has a similar unit. So they created this clip that sticks to your helmet in the desired location and you simply slide the UClear unit onto the clip, attach the wire for the mic and speakers and you good to go. If you have a UClear mount on your hard hat or Mountain Bike helmet, all you have to do is slide the UClear module off the other clip and onto this one, connect the wires and off you go.

My brothers and co-hosts, Tim and Chris, did not spend a whole lot of time with their individual units, as a result leaving me to figure it all out. After the initial install which was done, via skype (that was fun…), neither one of them could get their units to pair with their phones. After a couple of updates that needed to be done, they tried again and again, they couldn’t pair. To be fair, it took me a few attempts as well in the beginning.

The UClear AMP+ will allow pairing of 4 units together with a range of up to a half mile. The Sena SMH-10 will also pair up to four but it’s range is about an eighth of a mile.

When we finally got together at the ride start location, now knowing what to do, I was finally able to pair each of their units with their smart phones.  Now came the fun part: Establishing the intercom link between the units.

This proved impossible.

Following the instructions to the letter, via the app and the instruction card that came with the unit, I was unable to connect the three intercoms together. I was able to connect two after nearly an hour of trying and for some reason (an errant button push perhaps) the two units ignored each other…. sort of. I could hear Tim, but he couldn’t hear me. We shut the units down completely and attempted again. This time I connected with Chris and we could hear each other sort of fine. I could not connect Tim. We shut all the units down again and I could not re-establish an intercom link with either of them.

Chris gave up out of frustration and although he could listen to music if he wanted, he elected to not wear his half helmet with the UClear and went with his novelty, colander helmet instead, much to us urging him not to.  Tim continued with his half helmet but did not listen to any music nor did he elect to pair it with the Tom-Tom GPS on his bike out of frustration with the AMP Plus. I did instruct him that I would call him during the ride and all he had to do was say “Hello” and it would answer. I did call him during the ride and he did not hear the phone ring in his ears, but he did hear it ring in his pocket.

I continued to use the UClear and it was paired with my GPS, as well as my iPhone and it worked flawlessly. I was getting turn by turn directions and making a phone call to my wife. Worked great and I could hear everything normally. On side note here, the pairing of my Garmin Zumo 390 GPS and the AMP Plus was the easiest pairing of all. My Garmin found the AMP Plus, I pressed “Pair” on the Garmin and it was done. No dancing, sacrificing goats or virgins. Literally 5 seconds. It should all be that easy.

As we stopped for lunch, was finally able to connect the intercom between myself and Tim’s unit.

Now although I can hear music clearly, navigation turn-by-turn was clear as a bell, when I called my wife she could hear me clearly… with the intercom, it was very difficult to understand Tim when we talked.  Now I do understand that we were both wearing half helmets and we have loud pipes. But as mentioned earlier, all other audio coming into my ears was crystal clear.

To adjust the volume on the Sena SMH-10, one simply has to reach up and turn the giant knob on the side of your head. Seriously, that’s it. To turn up the volume on the UClear AMP+, you just have to tap the up or down buttons….. when you find them. BUT, be careful not to put your taps to close together or you’ll find yourself skipping songs.

The microphone placement is another interesting part of the UClear System. With most other systems, you are dealing with a boom mic of some sort OR a little pad microphone that you would stick to the inside of your full face helmet if you were wearing one. With a half helmet or 3/4 helmet, you use a boom as I have done with my Sena SMH-10. The mics for the UClear unit are these tiny little boxes in-line with the earbuds or speakers. Which is another thing. The UClear units allow the use of earbuds OR standard speakers for your full face helmet.

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Micrphone (left) and Earbud

 

For this trip, we were all using our half helmets and the earbuds for the UClear system. So with the mics, the are mounted above the eyebrow under the fabric of the helmet.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mic mounting for half helmet

 

 

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Mic mounting for full helmet

If I had opted to use the full face helmet, the mics would be mounted inside and in front of where my mouth would be.

We would later discover that the Half helmet is not the ideal scenario to use with this system with because ambient noise will certainly interfere with the audio quality on the receiving end of the conversation.

 

Tim was questioning the installation of the Microphones and although I instructed him to install it the same way I did, I’m not sure the way I installed it was correct. The instructions gave little indication which way was the correct way. The microphones have a small hole on each side, one side has two silver dots as well, and it is unknown which side is the correct side that should be aimed towards our mouths. The instructions do not indicate this.

I installed my mics in the picture on the left and instructed Tim and Chris to do the same.

I’m not sure of the reason for the poor intercom audio quality in comparison to the iPhone, music and Navigation audio quality. Dramatic difference. While those audio functions were clear, the intercom sounded as though Tim was in a bathroom down the hall from me and I was constantly asking him to speak louder and slower and/or repeat was he just said. I suspect, as previously mentioned, the half helmets may have been the root of this evil.

One comment that we all agreed on was the buttons themselves. As previously mentioned, with the unit on the helmet, proper placement of your fingers on the buttons was difficult and hard to pinpoint when you’re on the bike. Perhaps we are just not familiar enough with the units to know it by memory, but be that as it may, I still find myself skipping songs when I just wanted to raise or lower the volume.

With the UClear system, you also can download an app to your smartphone and have it perform updates to the AMP+ unit. Any new feature that UClear may add to the unit, bug fixes, firmware updates are all done through the app. Perfect to keep your gear on top of the game. The Sena SMH-10 does not have this feature.

After the ride, I still had another hour of riding until I was back home, and it gave me some time to consider possible improvements, here are my thoughts:

  1. Buttons – As mentioned, perhaps small nodules where the buttons are on the unit themselves to make it easier to identify the location of where to press successfully.
  2. Bluetooth Pairing – I’m not sure the app is configured to its best ability to serve the purpose. All smart phones Bluetooth features are adept enough to connect the AMP unit to the phone, using the app to accomplish the same task seems redundant. However, it appears that without the app, the smartphone Bluetooth Pairing feature is not enough. Perhaps it would be ideal to have the either the smartphone Bluetooth feature or the app take control of the pairing. In my case, using the app to pair my iPhone to the AMP Plus did nothing until I executed the Bluetooth feature on my iPhone, then it found it and I was able to pair it when I went back to the app. See my comment about pairing with my GPS. Stupid fast and easy.
  3. Intercom Pairing – Here’s is where the app could excel and be the success behind the whole system.
    1. For this example, let us assume that the App completely controls the state of the Bluetooth pairing with the Smartphone and makes the connection upon hitting the connect button on the app, it instructs the Bluetooth feature on the smartphone to pair with the unit. Done.
    2. In the app, there would be a feature that allows the user to name their AMP Plus. In this case I would name it “Ted”. If I wanted to intercom with other riders who use the AMP plus system, I would go to the app, select “intercom”. The app would then search via Bluetooth for other AMP units and report that back to the app. In this case, units named “Tim” and “Chris” would appear. Any other AMP user that came into the group, their unit name would also appear in the app as well. From that, I would tap each of their names and then select a “connect” button on the app and then all three would connect. If a non-UClear user entered the group, the intercom function would find units called “Com1”, “Com2”, etc. and connecting to them would be the same. Other functions of disconnecting or reconnecting could be accomplished via the buttons on the unit.

I have used the UClear system and speakers in my full-face helmet. The ease of answering a call just by saying “Hello” is awesome. No need to push any buttons to answer a call. Call clarity is impeccable. Music sound quality is also amazing. Just wonderful. Hence, it is best suited for a full face helmet. Having it on a full face helmet does not make the buttons any easier to use however.

Oh but wait, you want to make a call? Well, time for some invisible button fun. With the Sena SMH-10, there is a single button on the back of the unit. All you have to do is press that once and it will activate Siri on your iPhone. Then all you have to do is tell her who to call and then she does her thing. With the UClear system, you have to press the main button and the down button at the same time. Successfully doing so will give you a “Boop” noise and a moment later Siri will activate and chime in. After one year of use, I’m just starting to get used to the correct placement of my fingers to activate the voice command mode. And despite that I still occasionally turn the unit off completely trying to locate the right spot to press. Mind you, I am doing this with summer gloves on, trying this with a heavier glove will likely produce unsuccessful results. Ugh… super frustrating when that happens.

Compliments on the battery life. I turned my UClear AMP Plus on at 8 a.m. and did not turn it off until nearly 7 p.m. and it was still going strong. Equally with the Sena SMH-10, battery life is just as good.

For this review, in summary, I like the unit with regard to the iPhone connectivity, audio quality of phone calls. The audio quality with regard to music is exceptional as is the audio quality with the GPS for turn-by-turn navigation. The area’s that I feel that are in need of improvement are: Smartphone pairing, Intercom connecting and intercom audio quality. Again, perhaps there was or is something we were not doing correctly and perhaps there is a way to make this an easier task than it was that we didn’t know about.

I will continue to use the UClear system because I like the audio quality, as mentioned. However, I would like the ability to use the intercom when on a group ride, but since I’m the only who will be using the UClear, it is not likely I’ll be doing any intercom chit chat. My Sena unit, while it works fine for group communication, will not let me pair my phone, GPS and have intercom at the same time and mostly, the audio quality is horrible. I am told that the Sena 10s, 20s and 30K are significantly better, but I am NOT a fan of the cost for those units at the moment. Perhaps down the road I’ll give them a shot.

This review is based on my experience with the UClear AMP+ system. Your results may vary. As will your results and mine with other comm units available out there. I may hate the Sena 20s, you may love it. You may hate the Cardo system or love the Sena SMH-10. Sadly we have to try them before we can say one way or the other which is best.

For me, I wish I could have the simplicity of the Sena SMH-10 and the Audio Quality of the UClear AMP+. Many of my associates use the Sena units and each have different experiences with them. Some good, some not so good. I think we can all agree though, the most important thing is the reliability. Now what feature you direct that need for reliability at is another thing. Is reliable determined by being able to make a call successfully? Is it being able to pair intercom units? Is it being able to pair all of your Bluetooth devices? What aspect of the unit working quantifies “reliable”?

Perfection, is a moving target.  Choose wisely.


UClear AMP+
Pros – Exceptional Audio Quality, small footprint mics, NO BOOM, easily transferable to other helmets, long range between units of group, great battery life, smart-phone firmware updates through app
Cons – Hard to find buttons, Impossible pairing with other AMP+ units, difficulty pairing with smart phone,

Sena SMH-10
Pros – Easy to use, large buttons, simple smartphone pairing, simple intercom pairing. simple Bluetooth connectivity
Cons – Boom, poor audio quality, permanent mounting to one helmet with tools, limited range, limited number of Bluetooth devices connection

3 thoughts on “The sound of Silence…is frustrating.

  1. Wow, great thorough review. I’ve owned a pair of uClears, a pair of Cardo Freecoms and now a Sena 20S. From my perspective of needing a rider to pillion intercom that supports Multitasking/Parallel Audio Streaming the Sena is hands down the best, most reliable unit.
    uClear: poor audio quality and unreliable.
    Cardo Freecom: started out good but Phone won’t automatically connect 4 out 10’times and with each firmware release iOS support gets worse. The latest release they removed Parallel Audi streaming from the iOS app, must have feature for me.
    Sena: ‘just works’. Super reliable but control wheel isn’t as good as the Freecom unit.

    All these units I’ve bought with my own money and used for at least 6 months.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ted,I’ve used uclear for years. I have the original unit. One thing I love odds that I have NO microphones. Ok I do have them but they are part of the speaker system so other than the control unit there’s no way to tell I have a Bluetooth helmet. The switching helmets is,as you eluded,super easy. I have a speaker set for my 3/4 helmet,full face’ and snowboarding helmet. One unit transfers seamlessly around all 3.
    I don’t use the system for intercom,only once and that was connected to a sena unit so there’s no way of telling anything other than it did work.
    After 6-7 years it still works,but during a heavy rain storm,I mean cars pullingoff the road, it did stop working(happened on 2 occasions) but really? I think it was close to being submerged for hours both times.
    All in all is recommend it to anyone. Oh,and pairing? I’ve had no problems pairing phones. Yeah,I’ve updated my phone 3 times since buying this unit.

    Liked by 1 person

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