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