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Cardo Scala Rider G4 PowerSet Headset

July 21st, 2011
Scala Rider brings its flagship system with lots of connection options

Some motorcycle riders go for rides to get away from it all; no one can reach you by phone, there are no immediate distractions like email or text and it's generally just them, the bike and the road. There are some, however, who are not ready to give up the comforts afforded by a car such as the ability to communicate with others around them, be they passengers, fellow riders or those farther away. This is where Cardo comes in with its Scala Rider G4 PowerSet. The set includes two communicators and all required gear to allow intercom two-way communications between two helmeted motorcyclists without a connected cellphone and with an industry-topping claimed range of up to one mile. We'll see in our G4 PowerSet review how it fares. Opening the box

Included in the kit is all hardware needed to install the communicators onto a helmet. The plastic attachment point for the communicator itself clamps onto the edge of the lid thanks to Allen screws, and two Allen keys are supplied. A more permanent option involves using the glue plate, which is also included, along with two alcohol prep pads. There are wired Velcro-backed speakers that attach to the inside lining of the helmet. Finding an optimal position for these proved to be the most time-consuming part of the process, but this may differ depending on the type of helmet riders have. The noise-cancelling microphone is on a flexible boom; a version with a wired mic can also be ordered for a stealthier installation in full-face helmets.

Conspicuously absent is any form of software on a CD, but opening the multi-language printed owner's manual reveals that what proved to be very useful software can be downloaded from Cardo's website. The costly communicators themselves slide out of the mounts for charging and keeping them from being stolen while the helmet is locked onto the bike. The communicators sport blue and red LED lights that inform of status. The blue LED blinks intermittently every three seconds.

Features, call quality, and syncing

Once synced, each communicator can be customized with six FM radio presets and other nice touches like status beeps or speech. Without the software, which allows users to dial in the FM presets, finding six favorite stations manually is a frustrating and time consuming process. Software updates are also available over the software. While on the road, users can find the strongest signal available for the FM stations they are listening to in an area thanks to the RDS feature that needs to be enabled in the settings while synced. Pressing the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons at the same time will enable this. Also, users can find temporary stations while on the go and out of the range of the preselected ones by pressing and holding the Volume Down button for six seconds. This replaces all six presets with the strongest current signals. Turning the G4 off resets these to the permanently saved stations.

Users can also choose from eight spoken languages, including English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese and Russian.

Once hooked up, a button press will also replace all presets with the six strongest stations in a particular area, which can be useful for very frequent road trippers. Radio quality in the city was solid. The signal quickly deteriorated in rural areas, however. The flip-up antenna doesn't help improve signal strength, but it's not meant to; its sole purpose is to increase the intercom range between riders.

The G4 also quickly and easily pairs with Bluetooth devices for hands-free phone conversations or A2DP audio streaming. Users can dial by voice if their phone supports it or redial the last number by pressing the call button twice. Answering incoming calls is relatively easy: you can say hello into the boom mic or press the call button. Hanging up only works through the call button or waiting for the other side to end the call, however. Call quality itself is remarkably well isolated, with those on the still end of the conversation not aware the caller is riding a bike. The conversation still has a noticeably different sound than directly from the handset, but they may as well be on any Bluetooth or hands-free device. Music streaming can be controlled by the buttons or voice, though voice control wasn't consistent.

The G4 set will also pair with Bluetooth music players or GPS units though an unusually sophisticated hierarchy scheme. Depending on the device, incoming cellphones and navigation directions are at the top, with the Intercom and Click to Link (more on this shortly) second, then the A2DP source, FM radio and finally, auxiliary input. Incoming events from any of the higher sources interrupts those below it.

Performance in practice

The system can pair with other and older Cardo systems as well and even has a quick Click to Link feature for quickly pairing with random riders wearing compatible systems on the street. We didn't get a chance to test this out.

The intercom is fairly useful on the street as it lets two riders or a passenger and rider hold easy, quiet and unencumbered conversations. In the former case, the one-mile range wasn't verified as we found it heavily relies on line of sight. The highest effective distance was 0.6 miles, though this was on a lightly trafficked, albeit wide and straight, city street. We suspect the full distance would be attainable on a flat stretch of interstate without any obstructions such as buildings, traffic signs, trees or significant amount of cars. Even when closer together, when the lead rider turned at an intersection and disappeared behind a building, the signal was lost.

Otherwise, voice quality is more than acceptable, and a volume adjustment lets users make up for traffic noise without sacrificing quality. Users can speak to other riders by simply speaking into the microphone (VOX needs to be activated in the settings), but this is meant for short conversations as it puts the channel into standby mode after 30 seconds of silence. For longer conversations, users need to tap either Channel A or Channel B to connect to a respective rider.

It's also possible to pair the G4 with more than one other Scala unit as there are two channels per unit. This requires two more G4 communicators and allows up to four riders to connect but it's a little more complicated. In this case, where there are two bikes with a passenger and rider on each, the two passengers are connected to each other through Channel B, while each rider is connected to the passenger through channel A. In this full duplex mode, the two riders depend on their connected passenger to speak to the other bike's rider and passenger. If one of the passengers disconnects, the group chat is disabled until that passenger is reconnected. The same can be applied to three riders, and conversations between four independent riders aren't possible.

The units have a built in battery and recharge over a mini USB connection. Claimed battery life is a generous 10 hours, and we never ran into a problem during a ride. The unit beeps at you intermittently or says 'battery low' if programmed to do so with the sync software. This provides plenty of notice. It's much more likely the slim speakers will become a hindrance, though, when trying to cover truly epic distances. They are hard-wired to the mount making swapping them out for a favorite and comfy set of earbuds a rather intimidating and permanent process. If we were keeping the system, we'd likely modify our helmet's liner to slightly sink the speakers into the sponge to give them more room away from the ears, as the convenience of throwing on the helmet rather than putting in earbuds and then the helmet outweighs the earbud option. After about two hours of riding, the current setup was a significant pain in the ear. It's important to note this is dependant on the helmet and will vary by the user.

For the ultimate quality and longest battery life of both the Cardo and source units, a 3.5mm input is also included for hardwiring audio sources. While Cardo supplies two cords for this purpose, they only serve as one-way audio inputs in each direction. While we didn't have one, those with audio cables that have a third ring on the plug can also handle an in-line mic and remote. Incoming calls will take precedence but won't pause playback; we're not sure the call button would work for answering calls.

Wrapping up

The beauty of the G4 PowerSet, for us, rests in just how often it can be used. If by yourself, it's useful for phone calls and music; if you're driving with a friend in close formation or a backseat passenger, it morphs into a form of walkie talkie.

Outside of the more subjective fit issues, the only way we can think of to significantly improve the feature set would be support for conventional two-way radios. This would be useful, for example, when traveling with groups that include cars, as those users wouldn't then require a helmet of their own or make a conventional phone call that will rack up usage minutes.

Cardo's system to us feels then like an ideal mix of core voice tasks with some valuable media features on the side. While the two communicator system costs a healthy $489 (a single G4 unit can be had for $280) its capabilities and level of fit and finish make it well worth the expense.

-Convenient, easy to use.

-Lots of connection options.

-Long battery life.

-Can be truly useful and enhance the safety aspect and appeal on long trips.

-Claims of one-mile range optimistic.

-Range relies on line of sight.

-Speakers not comfortable for longer rides.

-Slight delay in voice-activated mode.