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Words and pictures by Kenn Stamp
There are quite a few companies now making Bluetooth communicators for motorcyclists and almost all of them are built the same way; two speakers, a control unit mounted on the outside of the helmet and a microphone boom. I say almost all of them because there is one noticeable rebel: the HBC200 Force from Uclear.
Sure the HBC200 Force has two speakers and yes it does have a control unit that you mount on the outside of your helmet. What Uclear doesn’t provide the HBC200 Force with however is a boom microphone. Instead, they use magic, wizardry and something called “Digital Microphone Array Technology”.
Uclear builds their microphones into the speaker housings and uses technology to strip your voice out of the ambient background noise. If you were to look at Uclear’s website under the “Technology” tab you would find a pretty complete technical explanation of how and why their technology works. For those of you aren’t technically-minded or have an aversion to reading things that make their head hurt, I’ll attempt to translate their “Adaptive-Beam Forming algorithm” and “Adaptive Interference-Cancellation” talk into something slightly more brain friendly.
Basically it works like this; the microphones built into the earpieces pick-up your voice along with all the ambient noise as well. That data then goes through 4 stages of electronic filtration that separates the user’s voice from the ambient noise and interference noise:
Stage 1 handles identifying your voice against the background noise – Stage 2 improves your voice quality and separates out the noise (both ambient and interference) – Stage 3 scrubs the interference noise out of the signal – and Stage 4 scrubs the ambient noise and sends the user’s optimized voice out to whomever they are talking to.
It’s actually a lot more complicated than my explanation makes it sound but you get the basic gist of the Uclear HBC200 Force technology.
What is more important to me, and I’m guessing to most of you as well, is how Uclear’s system works as a Bluetooth communication system.
Most people use their helmet mounted Bluetooth systems to do the following three things: Talk on the phone, talk to other riders and/or their passenger and listen to music from their phone/mp3 player. I’ll break down the three uses individually.
Listening to music
If I have to pick one use the Uclear HBC200 Force excels at it’s this one. Since the control unit mounted on the side of the helmet has but three buttons it’s easy to figure out which buttons do what. The big button is play/stop, the top button skips to the next song and the bottom button backtracks to the beginning of the current song or, if close enough to the beginning of the song, skips back to the previous song. Those top and bottom buttons also control the volume in all modes as well.
What impresses me most about the music playing abilities of the Uclear HBC200 Force is the volume and sound quality the speakers can attain. Sure it’s not like listening to a high-end surround sound system from Bose or anything but the quality of sound is far above any other helmet mounted Bluetooth communication system I’ve tried. I usually wear foam earplugs when I ride and, with the Uclear system, I can still listen to my music; something I can’t do with any other system.
I’ll give the Uclear HBC200 Force a solid 10 in the “listening to music” category.
Talking on the phone
Another common thing riders use Bluetooth communication systems for is to be able to take phone calls while out on the road. I personally don’t do this very often because my riding time is my escape time but some people feel differently. Answering an incoming call is as simple as either saying “hello” (or “what!?!” or “F-off, I’m riding” or however you normally answer the phone) or by pushing the big button on the control unit.
I was told by everyone I spoke with while testing the Uclear HBC200 Force that, while they could hear me clearly, I sounded like I was far, far away from them. On the bright side, even with earplugs in, I could hear my conversation partner loud and clear.
Since the microphones are built into the speaker housing some of that “muffled” sound is caused by the padding in the helmet. And each helmet is going to be different as well. On the Bell Star that I mounted my unit to the microphones sit directly behind the padding for the chinstrap. You results may vary depending on the brand of helmet you wear and where the speakers/microphones have to be mounted.
I’ll give the Uclear HBC200 Force a 7 in the “Talking on the phone” category due to being constantly asked “are you in a tunnel?”
Rider to Rider or Rider to Passenger Communication (R2R / R2P)
I had Uclear send me the dual pack set-up of the HBC200 Force because I knew that, besides listening to music, the next thing the system would be used for was rider to passenger communication. I didn’t realize that the HBC200 Force wasn’t a voice-activated (VOX) communication system until I got the units installed and kept trying to talk to my wife. After reading the instructions (hey I’m a guy – we never read the instructions first) I was able to initiate a conversation but it wasn’t the most convenient thing to do.
If you are communicating between two HBC200′s the only way to initiate the conversation is by holding the top button down for 2 seconds. This opens the channel between the two units and allows you to talk. When you are done talking you press the bottom button for 2 seconds and the open channel is closed. Repeat as needed until you arrive at your destination or you get tired of pushing and holding the button numerous time.
This system works well between riders on different bikes, and indeed that seems to be where Uclear is focusing their marketing, but it is a bit cumbersome when you are using the HBC200 as a rider to passenger communication device; especially if one, or both of you, are “chatty” people.
Going back to that rider to rider focus I was speaking of – the HBC200 uses a “Multi-hop technology” that allows individual HBC200 units, when riding in a group setting, to act as a relay/repeater station between any two HBC200 units. In other words, the range between two units is 700 meters but stick a 3rd paired unit in the middle and the two people chatting can be up to 1400 meters apart. Add a 4th person into the mix and that range is boosted up to 2100 meters.
I’ll give the Uclear HBC200 Force a 10 in the “R2R” category due to the “Multi-hop technology”. Since Uclear isn’t marketing the HBC200 Force as a rider to passenger communication system I can’t really ding it too badly for being a bit irritating to use that way. The “tunnel” effect heard by the other party when on a phone call doesn’t seem to affect R2R or R2P communications as voices came through loud and clear.
I find Uclear’s 3 big button controls on the HBC200 Force to be a nice change from systems with smaller or more (or smaller AND more) buttons. When you are riding a motorcycle the less buttons to contend with the better and Uclear certainly nails that philosophy.
If you are in the market for a Bluetooth communication device and your primary goals are listening to music and R2R communications then I’d highly recommend the Uclear HBC200 Force. Sure it falls a bit flat when used as a R2P intercom but it excels so much in the R2R and listening to music categories that it still gets my recommendation.
For additional information and a more in-depth technical explanation please visit: http://www.uclear-digital.com/