Motorcycles

Review: Cardo's Packtalk Black motorcycle headset rocks XL speakers

Review: Cardo's Packtalk Black...
Cardo's flagship Packtalk Back Bluetooth headset offers an impressive large-diameter JBL speaker set
Cardo's flagship Packtalk Back Bluetooth headset offers an impressive large-diameter JBL speaker set
View 8 Images
Cardo's flagship Packtalk Back Bluetooth headset offers an impressive large-diameter JBL speaker set
1/8
Cardo's flagship Packtalk Back Bluetooth headset offers an impressive large-diameter JBL speaker set
The Packtalk Black is an average-sized unit on the side of your helmet – a lower-profile Packtalk Slim is available
2/8
The Packtalk Black is an average-sized unit on the side of your helmet – a lower-profile Packtalk Slim is available
A pop-up antenna gives you extra range when it's time to use the intercom – you can fold it out of harm's way in daily solo riding
3/8
A pop-up antenna gives you extra range when it's time to use the intercom – you can fold it out of harm's way in daily solo riding
Button control scheme uses a media button at the front, an intercom button at the top, a phone button at the bottom and a clickable, scrollable control wheel at the back – in my opinion they could be a little more prominent and easier to find with gloves on
4/8
Button control scheme uses a media button at the front, an intercom button at the top, a phone button at the bottom and a clickable, scrollable control wheel at the back – in my opinion they could be a little more prominent and easier to find with gloves on
Sticker and boom mics are provided; you'll need the latter for a flip-face lid like this AGV Sportmodular
5/8
Sticker and boom mics are provided; you'll need the latter for a flip-face lid like this AGV Sportmodular
JBL has upgraded its flagship Packtalk Bold with a murdered-out paint job and an extra-large set of JBL speakers
6/8
JBL has upgraded its flagship Packtalk Bold with a murdered-out paint job and an extra-large set of JBL speakers
You'd look grumpy too if you had to go around with a face like this
7/8
You'd look grumpy too if you had to go around with a face like this
The 45-mm JBL speaker set offers noticeably punchier bass than smaller speakers – it connects to the headset via a standard 3.5-mm jack and is sold as an upgrade to other Cardo headsets
8/8
The 45-mm JBL speaker set offers noticeably punchier bass than smaller speakers – it connects to the headset via a standard 3.5-mm jack and is sold as an upgrade to other Cardo headsets
View gallery - 8 images

Cardo, as we told you when we first previewed this device, had the first motorcycle Bluetooth headset back in 2004, and the first rider-to-rider intercom in 2007. Packtalk was another first; a self-healing mesh network that allowed more than a dozen riders to chat together on the road in a big group that splits up when bikes spread out too far, and re-forms the full group when the distance is closed again. Black is a color. Well, technically a shade.

Put them all together, and the Cardo Packtalk Black is a premium motorcycle Bluetooth headset that differentiates itself from the standard Packtalk Bold in three ways: firstly, it's black. Secondly, it gets and extra year of warranty. And thirdly, instead of 40-mm speakers, it rocks a larger set of 45-mm JBL speakers intended to provide superior audio and extra bottom end.

The downside to bigger speakers, of course, is that they're bigger speakers. A little thicker, too, than the ones on the old Sena 20S I pulled out of my AGV Sportmodular helmet to install the Packtalk Black. I did eventually manage to wedge them into the speaker cutouts in the helmet shell, but not without looking sideways at a Stanley knife before thinking better of it. If you're having trouble with smaller speakers rubbing against your ears, these meaty JBL units will probably make that worse.

The 45-mm JBL speaker set offers noticeably punchier bass than smaller speakers – it connects to the headset via a standard 3.5-mm jack and is sold as an upgrade to other Cardo headsets
The 45-mm JBL speaker set offers noticeably punchier bass than smaller speakers – it connects to the headset via a standard 3.5-mm jack and is sold as an upgrade to other Cardo headsets

On the other hand, the sound is a definite step forward, particularly in terms of bass, and even more so when you jump into the settings menu and turn on the bass boost. At a standstill, without earplugs in, this thing can blast. Engine noise, road noise and the ruffling chaos of wind noise still gang up on the low end as speeds come up, but the Black has more muscle with which to fight them off, and the music listening experience is better as a result. Mind you, if you want a proper audiophile experience, custom full-isolation ear molds will work just fine with any Cardo system, since Cardo's speakers connect to the headset with a standard 3.5-mm jack.

Beyond the sound and speaker placement, the experience of using the Packtalk system is very solid. The button controls might be a tad hard to find with gloves on, but the scroll wheel is great, and the "hey Cardo" voice command system gives you access to most of the things you need on the fly anyway. And while you do often have to ask a few times, the "OK Google" and "hey Siri" commands let you do a ton of other stuff on your phone hands-free. What's more, the Cardo Connect app is terrific and very intuitive. I found the app the easiest way to handle intercom pairing, music sharing and settings.

I tested the intercom features twice, with two different riders. The first was Sharky with his Sena 20S, using the universal Bluetooth pairing feature. The experience was not great for either party; these two kids don't like being forced to play together. With me in front and Sharky behind, we got maybe 50 m (160 ft) of line-of-sight distance between us before the signal started getting patchy. With me following Sharky, this distance was roughly halved for some reason. The voice quality was serviceable but not great; something like an old corded phone.

The Packtalk Black is an average-sized unit on the side of your helmet – a lower-profile Packtalk Slim is available
The Packtalk Black is an average-sized unit on the side of your helmet – a lower-profile Packtalk Slim is available

The second was Jason, using an older Cardo Packtalk unit, and when paired with its own cousin in DMC mode, the voice quality jumped significantly to equal the HD voice mode you get when you connect a pair of high-end Sena units. The range, though, was a little hit and miss. With one bike stationary we had no trouble talking clearly over 500-plus-meter (1,600+ ft) line-of-sight gaps, and even then, the signal only seemed to deteriorate when I rode underneath some big power lines. On the move, separated by some moderate traffic, we seemed to need to keep within a few hundred meters (1,000 ft).

But this was in the electromagnetic soup of the city; in open country, it's reasonable to expect them to reach much further. And there were only two of us – the Packtalk system delivers its best range figures when a number of bikes are involved, each headset acting as an independent node and extending the self-healing mesh network dynamically to stretch across up to 8 km (5 miles) of open space.

The battery life is around 13 hours, enough for two fairly decent days on the road. The warranty is an outstanding three years. The clip-on mount is so easy to use that you can pull the Cardo off its mount and click it back in with your gloves and helmet on. The wind noise reduction is epic; people on the phone had no idea I was blasting down the highway until I told them. And the dynamic volume is a terrific inclusion, giving you strong volume at speed while making sure you don't blow your ears out at the stop lights.

A pop-up antenna gives you extra range when it's time to use the intercom – you can fold it out of harm's way in daily solo riding
A pop-up antenna gives you extra range when it's time to use the intercom – you can fold it out of harm's way in daily solo riding

All in all, I feel the Cardo Packtalk Black has earned its reputation at the top of the Bluetooth intercom tree. It delivers a solid sound upgrade on top of the already excellent Packtalk Bold, and thus the best audio experience this side of in-ears. In a vacuum, I'd say the Cardo's waterproof rating (seriously, Sena does not offer a waterproof rating), three-year warranty, upgraded speakers and reputation for quality should put it ahead of the equivalent Sena 50S, which I'm yet to test and which comes in US$50 cheaper.

Life is not a vacuum, though, and if the group riding intercom experience is important to you, you're probably best off checking what your buddies are riding with and staying within that system for best results. One thing's for sure though, at least in my eyes: riding on comms absolutely takes things to the next level. I've been riding with Bluetooth headsets since 2012, and I now feel absolutely naked without one.

The Packtalk Black is available internationally from the Cardo website for US$389.95.

Source: Cardo Systems

View gallery - 8 images
5 comments
5 comments
guzmanchinky
Look, I've been riding for 40 years, and if it's one thing I've learned, noise makes you fatigued. I know it takes away from the protective abilities of the helmet, but I have carved out room for a full set of Bose Quiet Comfort 25's (the ones with a AAA battery) inside my Shoei Hornet X2 helmet. I simply cannot tell you how nice it is not to hear ANY wind noise and MOST engine noise and clearly hear music and phone calls or the voice of my riding buddy or pillion.
Nelson Hyde Chick
Motorcycling is something you should be at full attention when doing because drivers do not see us, so this device will distract some of us and thus lead to more of us being killed by negligent drivers.
guzmanchinky
Nelson believe it or not the vast majority of motorcycle crashes are the fault of the rider, not a car. And even if a car is involved it's almost always the rider going way too fast or not paying any attention. So you're right, full attention, but the ball is truly in our court (which is great news, actually)...
Snorkky
Nelson Hyde Chick has a very relevant point. If I`m riding hard, I need to be able to hear my front tyre on the road. If I`m cornering and braking hard, I need to be able to hear the point at which my front tyre starts to `break away` just before the front tyre starts to slide.

If I`m out and about on the bike, just bimbleing around, I still need to be able to hear the halfwit who is going to knock me onto the road.

Stay alert, stay alive.
Mike
Another option to speakers or butchering the inside of your helmet are custom moulded in-ear monitors, perfect fit and lower volume levels needed..