By Vern Denena
and Fred Harmon
1997 KAWASAKI CONCOURS 1000cc (Green) $7,900 ea
1996 TRIUMPH TROPHY 1200cc (Maroon) $13,999 ea
AUTOCOM PRO 3000 (2) $259 ea
PRO HEADSET (4) $159 ea
MOTOROLA SPORT 10X UHF RADIO (2) 2 WATT $220 ea
KENWOOD FREETALK UHF Radios (2) 1/2 WATT $150 ea
RADIO INTERFACE LEAD (2) $60 ea
RML SWITCH (2) $60 ea
SHARP MINI DISC PLAYER/RECORDER (1) $299 ea
SONY DISCMAN CD (1) $250 ea
MUSIC SOURCE LEAD (2) $7.50 ea
BEL 945IM MOTORCYCLE RADAR DETECTOR (cordless) (1) $220
FEMALE AUXILLARY PILLON UNITS (2) one medium sized pot of gold each
The goal of this evaluation was to obtain an intercom system that was capable of incorporating high quality stereo music for both rider and passenger, a VOX operated passenger to rider intercom, bike to bike communications, and a radar detector override. For our tests we chose to use Frequency Modulated UHF transceivers for our bike to bike communicators instead of CBís. A Sharp recordable minidisc and a Sony portable CD player were used as music sources, and a Bel radar detector was used as the Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) device.
Initial evaluation consisted of mounting headsets and front mount microphones in a Shoie and a Bell helmet. Installation was straightforward on both helmets. I was able to mount the speakers behind the stock lining of the Shoie with only minor disassembly of the helmet padding and no cutting required. The Bell took a little more effort, the removable foam insert was replaced with a homemade insert which was built to accept the speakers. I then covered this assembly with matching lining material and used Velcro to hold the insert in place. Wire length is sufficient to allow some variation in installation so there should be very little problem fitting this system to most helmets. I would recommend laying out the speakers and mike in several configurations prior to any serious disassembly of the helmet liner. Keep in mind the side of the helmet you wish to connect your leads to along with any directional considerations (facing fwd or aft). Proper alignment of the speakers is critical. AutoCom recommends that the speakers be perfectly centered on the ear canal to achieve the proper volume level.
Initial testing was done while using the Pro3000 system as a portable, although designed to be carried by the pillion (the riders lead is longer than the pillion lead) there is sufficient length to be carried by the rider instead of the passenger. This setup will vary from bike to bike and will probably be best suited for sport and sport touring configurations where there is little separation between the rider and pillion. Headset extension leads (both coiled and straight) are available for $60 each. A power adapter is also available from AutoCom for $60, and for another $20 they will include an auxiliary lead to power your portable music source in the voltage you request. The Pro3000 can be mounted under the seat or in a fairing pocket and left as a permanent part of the bike if you so desire. It also easily fits into the fairing pocket on the Concours, but you will have to cut some holes in the either the pocket bottom or the lid to allow for the wires to enter.
Once speaker and microphone placement have been satisfactorily tested in the living room itís time for a little on road experimentation. Riding solo with a music source only tests a small portion of the Pro3000ís capability, but is worth doing to become accustomed to the auto volume feature and microphone and earphone placement. The side tone allows you to speak into the system and test the volume required to activate the VOX as well as detection of any unwanted activation as a result of wind noise. Normal ambient noise will not activate this system at any speed and wind noise is not a problem unless you have installed the microphone incorrectly.
The Sharp minidisc is a recordable CD type player that uses smaller (cartridge type) discs than regular CDís and is less susceptible to shock. One disc holds 74 minutes of music and can be re-recorded on millions of times. The Sharp never skipped once on any roads, even when it rode in the bottom of a tank bag resting directly on top of the tank. The Sharp minidisc has a maximum volume level of 30. When recording the minidiscs you can control the recording level, which will affect the playback volume. When the minidiscs were recorded at just below the maximum level, they could be played back with the volume set between 18 to 25 with ample volume. The Pro3000 unit also has a fader on it, so if the driver (or Significant Other [S.O.]) likes it louder, you can adjust it for their tastes. This can also help if the passengers helmet gets more wind noise that the music has to overcome.
SONY CD PLAYER
The CD player used (SONY D848K) provided a wired remote control and a 10 sec electronic shock protection (ESP) circuit. Despite the 10 sec ESP, the CD had to be slung in a tank bag using miniature bungee cords as a sort of a hammock with foam mounted to the bottom of the CD. This was the only way the CD player would work without skipping constantly. Even with this arrangement, the CD player still skipped on rougher roads. Another drawback was that the CD player had to be turned up to full volume, and even then it still did not get loud enough for my tastes. We spoke with the folks at AutoCom about this and they said that some Sony products (CDís and Minidiscs) did not provide enough amplification to work well with the Pro3000. This is one of the only real complaints we have about the Pro3000 unit. They need a volume control on the unit to allow to compensate for different music sources. AutoCom reports that they are looking into this problem. All in all, I would not recommend using a CD player. If you donít want to go to the minidisc route, then get a good AM/FM Tape type portable unit or install a car type audio system. If you are buying a portable music source for use on the bike, it would be a good idea to take your Pro3000 and helmet into the store and make sure that it can provide enough volume before you buy it. If you are going to use an in- dash type car audio unit, you should not have any problems with volume.
RADAR DETECTOR OVERIDE
The Radar Detector override function did not work with a Bel 945I radar detector plugged into a dual lead that the Sony CD player was also plugged into. The Radar signal would initially blast so loud that it was unbearable, no matter how low the volume was set on the Bel 945I. When the CD player was turned on, the Belís signal was then inaudible. (I suspect that the SONY CD player was grounding out the detectors signal and thus canceling it out.) AutoCom is in the process of manufacturing a T Isolation lead that will allow a detector and a music source to operate in harmony, but it was not available at the time of this evaluation. Despite this I was still able to slip the slim buzzer that came with the Bel unit into my helmet, under the Pro3000ís speaker, and still hear it. The only down side to this was that there were two wires coming from my helmet instead of one when using the Radar Detector.
Triumph Trophy 1200
With limited wind protection or in situations where strong cross winds are encountered the auto volume control may become a little annoying if the sensor is left hanging from the helmet. To compensate for these conditions yet still retain the feature I found that installing the plug (which contains the sensor) in the lining of the helmet eliminated most of the unwanted high volume spikes first encountered with the plug in the slipstream. I am more comfortable with this installation because it is nearer to my ears and I believe this more closely represents what you hear as a rider. This is a personal preference and will vary depending on helmet and the amount of wind protection provided by your motorcycle.
On the Concours, no problems were experienced with the auto volume getting too loud, actually it was not quite loud enough at times, but that was more of a result of the source (Sony CD) not being loud enough in the first place. By holding the drivers lead out into the air stream the auto volume would drive the music to a point that it was actually too loud. This shows how much the sensor is impacted by wind noise. AutoCom recommends that if the auto volume effect needs to be increased to swap the driver and passenger leads. This puts the auto volume microphone (which is buried in the connector for the drivers lead) on the passengers helmet and more in the air stream. You can also cut the lead on the auto volume microphone if you donít desire the auto volume function.
RIDER AND PILLION
The AutoCom unit allows for natural rider to passenger communication in a true duplex mode (meaning that both parties can argue simultaneously and yet still hear what the other one is shouting back). This allows for a more lively ride and can greatly enhance the enjoyment of your S.O. , although sometimes at the drivers expense. ("Honey, lets stop at that little store over there so I can look at the knick knacks") On a longer trip, you begin to understand the reason you install a system such as this and put the Pro3000 to the test of communicating with your passenger while enjoying a little music. As mentioned in the brochure, placement of the speakers is critical and the microphone must be very close if not touching your lips for proper operation. It is necessary to speak in a little louder tone than normal conversational tone, but not to the point that it is uncomfortable. While riding solo I did some test with the music switch in the mute and fade position, and my personal preference was in the fade position allowing me to talk over the music. (This becomes even more important if you are getting some unwanted activation of the VOX.) While riding two up the fade position/function was the most comfortable setting for both rider and pillion, although this will vary depending on ambient noise and personal preference. It was very easy to conduct a conversation with the music in the background. When using the mute function there was some degree of distraction when the music would shut off and then come back on, especially if there was a pause between VOX activations.
AutoCom sells a Remote Mute Transmit Lead (RML) that allows the communications radio you have plugged into it to transmit using the VOX function. They also sell a Push To Talk (PTT) lead. Autocom recommends the RML toggle switches over the PTT, so that is what we used for our test. It has a long lead that allows you to mount it on the handlebar and it has three positions. One position allows you to receive only. I found this useful when you are having a private conversation with your passenger, but still want to hear any transmission from the other bike. It has an off position which stops the radio from receiving as well as transmitting and the third position puts the radio in the VOX mode which allows it to transmit whenever the driver or passenger speak. Another interesting feature of the full duplex system is that if both the driver and passenger speak together, both voices will be transmitted, but only one bike can transmit at a time. You have to get used to allowing time for the radio to begin transmitting, but all in all it works well. You can also put the RML switch in the receive only mode and then use the transmit button on the Motorola (or other radio) like a PTT switch, transmitting only when you push it. We found this feature useful as well, but you have to be able to reach the radio to use it.
BIKE TO BIKE(SOLO, WITH 2 WATT MOTOROLA 10X [GMRS])
Evaluation of the solo bike to bike radio tests were done in a variety of conditions which included flat and hilly/twisty roads along with some Interstate riding. Speeds from 30mph to over 120 mph (on a closed circuit track of course) and distances of approximately 1 mile were also a part of this test run. With obstructions and hills, practical communication (where 100% of all transmissions are received) in total is about ĺ of a mile. This radio is a little large, partly due to the extra length to accommodate the alkaline battery pack. (The unit also comes with a NiCad battery pack and charger.) If size is not a problem this would be the radio to use due to its range. When compared to the half watt Kenwood, the VOX circuit takes a longer time to activate the transmission of the Motorola radio, which can result in some lost words and fragmented sentences. As you use it more you begin to become accustomed to the delay and learn to adjust your speach as needed.
While traveling down the Interstate and carrying on a conversation it became very obvious how trouble free this system really is. In an hour of testing I listened to my MD player and communicated with my biking partner without making any adjustments to the MD player, the transceiver, or the Pro3000 system. On the other hand, my riding partner was constantly fiddling with his CD player and wires trying to get everything to work, without running into the ditch. The lesson here is to get everything set up correctly BEFORE you go out for a ride. If you are concerned with permanently mounting the system where the switches are not readily accessible, donít be, once set up properly you really should not have to make adjustments or select different modes of operation.
BIKE TO BIKE (SOLO, WITH KENWOOD FREETALK [FRS])
The folks at AutoCom told us that the FRS (half watt) radios generally wash out above about 70 mph. They also said that the Kenwood FRS radios work better than the Motorola TalkAbout models because they provide better signal modulation, so we didnít test the TalkAbouts. The first thing you will notice about the Kenwood radio is how conveniently sized it is, and with the flip up antenna it really makes for a small package. It is about the size of a small cell phone and is powered by three alkaline AA batteries. The audio is especially clear, although when testing in the same conditions as with the Motorola 10X there is definitely a reduction of range. Maximum range when riding in line of sight conditions is about Ĺ mile, radio position may improve this a little but for all practical purposes donít expect any more than this. Contrary to what AutoCom told us, speed did not affect our ability to communicate clearly. We tested the unit well into triple digit speeds and never had any loss of signal or clarity. An un-faired bike might not produce the same results with the half watt FRS radios at speed. The VOX activation of transmissions is much faster when using the Freetalk, resulting in a more natural flow of radio communications with fewer cut off words and fragmented transmissions. I even told a joke which lasted about 2-3 minutes just to see if I could comfortably keep the transmission going, something I would not try with the Motorola 10X.
BIKE TO BIKE(RIDER AND PILLION ON BOTH BIKES)
When riding in this configuration special consideration should be given to the type of setup you plan on using, i.e. RML vs. Press to Talk. This is primarily due to helmet design and wind protection afforded the passenger. If you have not already purchased a radio and the associated leads you can test your bike and pillion helmet setup by simply listening for VOX activation under different riding conditions and speeds. The RML switch works very well and is especially appreciated when riding in traffic when you need your left hand free to clutch. It is the recommended setup for most normal riding conditions since the standby, off, or VOX modes gives you a lot of flexibility. Even with problems encountered with inadvertent pillion VOX activation you can ride in the standby mode and either slow down if necessary or use the button on the radio to transmit in a Push-To-Talk mode to ensure good two way communications. There is also a VOX adjustment screw recessed in the Pro3000, but we elected to leave it at the factory settings for our test. Most of our unwanted VOX transmissions came from the passengers helmet on the Triumph and not the Concours. We blamed this on the noisy helmet that the passenger on the Trophy was wearing, and the smaller windshield of the Triumph. It can easily be remedied by placing a wind sock over the passengers microphone. The Motorola Sport 10X radios provided adequate range for normal driving conditions. Line of sight communication with a separation of slightly over one mile was achievable at any speed. When encountering hills and other obstructions the distance available for good quality communications was reduced to about ĺ mile using the Motorola 10X. When the mike was keyed or VOX activated you could clearly hear the rider and pillion conversation from the transmitting team. There is more than enough volume when using either of these radios, normal setting was about ľ turn on the volume control. Anything higher than this is much too loud, however itís good to know that the volume is there if you require it for your application.
Ear plugs can be worn with the Pro3000 system, and there is a two position switch for high/low volume of the intercom to accommodate ear plug use. You can still talk to your rider and communicate to the other bike on a UHF or CB radio with ear plugs in, but if you are going to be listening to music from a portable type source, you may not be able to drive the system loud enough to hear the music with ear plugs installed. However, a car type audio system would have no problem driving the Pro3000 loud enough to use ear plugs.
The Pro3000 unit is a top notch intercom system with as many or more capabilities of any other system currently on the market. Although some of the accessories and leads are not cheap, the system is very price competitive when compared to units with similar capabilities made by other manufacturers. Rider to Pillion communication is clear at any speed and the VOX system is flawless. AutoCom claims the Pro3000 unit is audible to speeds of 160 mph on an un-faired sport bike. After hearing how clear the unit was at high speed, I believe their claim. Communication to both my pillion and the rider and pillion of the other bike was clear and crisp at all attainable speeds. The Auto Volume function is also very effective, and is not offered on many (if any) other intercoms available. It smoothly adjusts the music volume depending on the amount of ambient noise that the drivers headset lead picks up. It can be easily adjusted through placement of the sensor. No more blasting stereo music in your ears when you come to a stop, or not being able to hear it when you get up to highway speeds.
Overall installation of the headsets is straightforward and within the capabilities of most people if you take your time and do a little pre-planning. Regardless of whether you use the system as a portable or install it permanently on your bike, the system should work well for you once set up to your particular requirements with little need to change settings.
Enough good things can not be said about the ability to communicate with a fellow biker that you are riding with. It makes everything so much easier and safer. UHF two way radio communication is excellent, although range will be dictated by the power of the radio you choose, bike setup and riding conditions. Initiating transmissions when using the VOX system appears to require a longer delay for the Motorola than the Kenwood. The Motorola also seems to shut off faster if you have a pause in your speech, which results in words being cut off, sometimes in mid sentence. The Kenwood radios did not seem to suffer from this problem. The interface between the radio and Pro3000 are well designed. Both the Transceiver and Pro3000 were located in close proximity to each other during these test with no apparent feedback problems. Bike to bike communication using either of these radios is almost as clear as talking on the phone. The ability to talk to both your passenger and another bike riding with you is a big plus. It also helps coordinate gas and lunch stops with the other bike and rider. ("Hey, I need to stop and use the rest room" or "Lets pull off here and take some pictures at that overlook") We also found it especially useful when passing. The first bike can pass and check the road ahead and inform the other bike(s) when it is safe. On group rides, it would be a big help to have the lead and tail bikes in communication to help keep track of the group. With bigger groups (over 5 bikes) you would want to use the sport 10X radios so you got the maximum range from the lead to tail bike, since the half watt radios die out at about half a mile. The Pro3000 unit can also be interfaced to an analog cell phone or a CB if you so choose. We elected not to use CB because of the crowded airwaves, and we were very pleased with the clarity and privacy of the UHF transceivers. We did not encounter anyone else transmitting on any of the channels during our test. On the other hand, since many of the GoldWing riders and other intercom systems use CB, it might be easier to communicate with other bikers you may encounter or travel with. You will have to weigh the proís and conís for yourself when considering what radio to use. As far as the (analog) cell phone goes, I can not see an occasion that I would want to make (or receive) a cell phone call while moving, but that feature is available if you desire it.
AutoCom also manufactures a unit called the EuroCom , which does most of the same functions as the Pro 3000, but does not include the Auto Volume function or the rider-to-passenger fader. It does, however wire in directly to the bikes 12 volt system without the need for a $60 power adapter. Consequently it can not be powered off of batteries in a portable configuration like the Pro 3000 can. The EuroCom is $199 and the standard headsets for the EuroCom are $109. You can save about $180 right off the bat, and you save another $60 if for the power adapter. I have also done some limited testing on the EuroCom and I find it to be almost as capable as the Pro3000. The VOX on the EuroCom operates a bit different, as the threshold point is fixed. On the Pro3000, the VOX threshold shifts above about 50mph depending on the input to the auto-volume mic. This makes for a smoother VOX operation. On the EuroCom you have to set the VOX trip point at a bit higher of an initial setting to prevent accidental transmissions from road/wind noise at higher speeds. Other than this minor drawback, the EuroCom does nearly everything the Pro3000 does except auto adjust the music volume and run on batteries.
AutoCom also makes a unit called the EasyCom for $99 that is a bare bones intercom. It can not be interfaced to a UHF transceiver or CB and can only play music in mono and not stereo.
There are several systems currently available for motorcycle audio and communication available today, and we have not tried them all, but the AutoCom unit appears to be unsurpassed in quality and features. It would be difficult to find a system that works as well and has all the features of the AutoCom at any price.
AutoCom products can be ordered from the following supplier:
TopGear Accessories Limited
P.O. Box 1477
Slingerlands, New York 12159
888-851-4327, 518-449-8677, 518-449-8876 fax
MINOR COMPLAINTS/ RECOMMENDED CHANGES (Picky Picky Picky)
This article was originally written almost two years ago. Since that time I have put over 30,000 miles on the system.
Here are the additional things I have learned since the original article:
1. FRS Radios have come way down in price since we did the original eval. Kenwood now makes a full 500 milliwatt radio (mine are only 300 milliwatts). Motorola now also makes a 1 watt system that sounds ideal.
2. RML vs PTT. If I had it to do all over again I would get a PTT switch instead of the RML. The RML VOX system works good most of the time, but sometimes it can cut off the first word of a sentence. It is also easy to forget you have it on and think you are having a private conversation with your wife only to realize everything you just said the other biker(s) could hear. Conversely it is easy to try to talk to another bike and forget to turn the RML switch on. PTT would eliminate this problem.
3. You will most likely want the additional power adapter ($70). Otherwise you will have to constantly feed your Pro3000 9 volt batteries. The power adapter can also be had with an additional power lead (in the voltage of your choice) for powering a walkman type music source.
4. I made the mistake of riding in a pouring rainstorm with my Kenwood radio in the open. It has never quite been the same. I also got rain/crud in the AutoCom connectors that had to be cleaned out. AutoCom has since updated their connector leads and the new connectors appear to be a bit more weather resistant.
5. I had to remove the autovolume microphone from the connector and relocate it to a place on the bike where it was exposed to the wind. When it was in the connector it rode behind the fairing and didn't get enough wind. I put it inside one of the small lovers on the fairing side panel near the reflector. It works much better here. I did have to cut the wires and do some soldering.
6. AutoCom came through with an isolation lead adapter for use with a radar detector. I have one installed and am using it with my Valentine One. It works very well and I have no problems with it.
7. I still have some issues with getting enough volume for the passenger to hear the music clearly because of the wind noise issue. Part of the problem is my wife's hair gets in the way of the speakers and the other problem is getting the speakers exactly centered over her ears.
8. Ear plugs. I have found that long exposure to wind noise and music is taking it's toll on my ears. I now use ear plugs 98% of the time. I have found that the ear plugs actually help the music clarity a bit, though I can never really get it loud enough. Again, most of this is because of my music source (minidisc) not putting out enough volume.
9. I had one headset speaker blow out and one extension lead go bad. Both items AutoCom replaced with no questions asked.