We'll get this out of the way up front: riding a motorcycle on the road is a generally dangerous and frequently challenging thing. Doing so while dialing into a concall or grooving to some chill tunes is, well, not something we would exactly encourage. So, when we were given the opportunity to test ride Cardo's latest helmet-friendly Bluetooth headset, the Scala Rider G4, we were a little unsure of just how useful the thing would be for a conscientious, safety-minded rider. We took a pair of the headsets for a spin just the same and were left firmly convinced that this is a product worth giving up our in-helmet singing careers for. Click on through to read why, and for a demonstration of some supremely impressive noise cancellation.
Out of the box
For our testing, Scala provided a set of two G4 headsets; helpful because one of the primary advances here is boosted range for headset-to-headset communications. Lots of folks ride with other people, but simple discussions about lunch plans, fuel stops, or the appropriateness of a pedestrian's attire can be difficult when you have 60mph of wind noise to contend with. The G4 filters out all that and allows up to four people to easily chat at a distance of up to a mile -- in theory. We couldn't even get to a half-mile before we lost connection but that was with some trees in the way and, honestly, that's plenty far for most situations.
That said, person-to-person communication is just the beginning of what this headset can do. It offers Bluetooth pairing to a phone, a media player, and a navigation system
simultaneously. (It even has a 3.5mm line-in and can tune in FM stations.) If you're a smartphone user there's a good chance you have all that covered by a single device, but if not the G4 will prioritize and make sure that your navigation updates don't get blocked by any of the many and lengthy guitar solos on Supermassive Black Hole.
The G4 charges over microUSB and is rated for a full 10 hours of talk with a week of standby. Pairing is as easy as with any other headset, just hold the power button down until it starts blinking and then let your device detect it. A few seconds later you're good to go. Mounting can be a bit more tricky, however. The G4 actually comes in two pieces: a clamp that attaches to your helmet and an easily removable portion with all the electronics inside. This is presumably so you can refill those batteries without taking your helmet to your charging stand, but we also like that you could leave your lid hanging on a footpeg in the parking lot but take the (costly) communicator itself with you.
There are two models of the G4, the version we have with a flexible boom mic and another that has one on a wire. The latter version would be preferred for a full-faced helmet like our Shoei, but the boom worked just fine when we bent it up into the helmet and then ran the speaker wires under the padding. The clamp fits between the padding and the shell of the helmet, but there is also an adhesive mount included if that setup won't work for you. Overall the process wasn't that bad, but we do wish the speakers weren't hard-wired into the clamp -- we could see possibly wanting to replace them with ear buds.
Going for a ride
When we performed our first call with the G4 we weren't quite sure what to expect, but we certainly wouldn't have predicted the person on the other end saying they couldn't hear the motorcycle, or the wind, or the 18-wheeler engine braking three feet to our right. Riding a motorcycle is a very noisy activity and this headset does an admirable job of killing all that and delivering only your voice through. Sure, speech sounds a bit compressed and having that mic pressed right up to our lips made us a little more mumbly than usual, but it's impressive nevertheless.
Hearing is surprisingly easy as well. The flat, Velcro-backed speakers are plenty loud and the volume ramps up as the background noise does, enough to hear even through earplugs. In most cases the headset does an admirable job of keeping the volume level appropriate as you speed up or slow down, but intercom conversations were a bit faint at low speeds. Changing the volume is easy enough with gloves on, as is answering calls (you can just say "hello"), but handling all the other features was more of a handful. There are A and B buttons for changing intercom channels and you can press and hold them for things like setting an FM station or connecting to a headset. We found ourselves wishing for a handlebar-mounted control unit that you could hit with your left hand without taking it off the grip.
That was especially true when directly connected to another headset. By default the headset disconnects after 30 seconds of silence and then reconnects you after you speak a word. There are two problems with this, the first one being that the other person never hears the first thing you say. If you yell "Look out, there's a cow in the road!" they'll still hear "There's a cow in the road!" But, if you just shout "Cow!" they're liable to hear nothing at all before getting a heck of a heifer surprise.
The other problem is that many motorcyclists have come to expect that nobody else can hear them when riding, and so commutes are turned into spoken word recitations or, in our case, impromptu demonstrations of helmet-filling baritone prowess. Voice-activated connections put a serious damper on this behavior, leaving us longing for a handlebar-mounted push-to-talk button.
We do have a few complaints about the Scala Rider G4, most of which could be addressed by some sort of thumb-accessible controls on the left grip, but overall we left feeling quite impressed. Given the price -- $299 each, or $499 for a pair -- you'd certainly hope they perform, and that they do. While that MSRP is certainly not cheap it is in-line with competing products and we left feeling its performance and relative ease of use make the G4 a solid contender.
For us, we're still not sure that riding while listening to music or making phone calls is something we want to get into. We will be missing the G4 and the connectedness it added to our rides, but we're also looking forward to getting back to perfecting our in-helmet rendition of Funiculì, Funiculà -- coming soon to an interstate near you.