Date reviewed: July 2019 | Tested by: John Milbank | Price: £129.99 each / £240.99 pair | www.pama.com
Using my bike every day, I really appreciate being able to listen to music while I ride – a long motorway blast when I have a meeting I need to get to, or even enjoying twisty back roads, I love having access to some music or an audio book. An intercom also gives me instructions from my TomTom, and I can make or answer calls if I need to (handy for speaking to my wife, not so good for work being able to ring me).
With a pair of Bluetooth intercom units like the Cardo Freecom 1+ Duo pack reviewed here, you can also speak to your pillion – no more punching in the ribs or frantic hand signals to point out an interesting view or demand a wee stop.
The Freecom 1+ is designed for two people on one bike – it doesn’t have the range of Cardo’s higher-end models, but for me, riding on my own or with my wife, it could be the best system. I’ve been using it on a Yamaha Niken, Yamaha MT-10 and a Kawasaki Versys 1000 for around 2,000 miles, 800 of which have been with my wife as pillion...
As with any intercom system, how the Cardo feels inside your lid will vary drastically according to the design of the helmet; look for recesses inside the liner to accept the speakers and if in doubt ask your dealer to let you try the kit inside your lid. Any pressure on your ears could become painful during a long ride.
I have the Freecom 1+ fitted to my Arai Profile V, while my wife has it in her Arai Debut – there seemed less space in her lid, and she could feel the speakers when she’d put them in, but found that over a full day in the saddle they gave her no issues. In my Profile V, I had to move them about a little to find the sweet spot that wouldn’t press against the cartilage at the front of my ear, but while I’m aware that the drivers are there when I put the helmet on, I’m not having any problem. In a Shark Evo One I found they pressed hard on my ears. Remember – we’re all different shapes, so it’s important that you check the fit of any intercom system.
The speakers are relatively thin and well-shaped – I’ve not seen anything significantly thinner (but I have seen thicker), so unless your helmet really isn’t designed to take speakers at all, you’ll likely get on well with these.
A stick-on and a clip-on bracket is supplied to hold the extremely compact main unit – we’ve used the clip-on with both, which grips the bottom edge of the outer shell. Two cables hang from this – one for the speakers and the other for the microphone. These are pretty small. and fairly easy to tuck under the neck skirt of your helmet.
The speakers have fine Velcro hooks on the back that will grip firmly to your helmet’s lining, or to the supplied self-adhesive-backed loop pads. Both of ours are fitted on the polystyrene of the Arai cheek pads beneath the removable fabric cover. Pads are also supplied to push the speakers out, in case your helmet has very deep recesses – it’s important to have any intercom speakers as close to your ears as is comfortably possible for the best clarity.
The optional wired microphone is a lot more compact than the boom supplied
Only a boom microphone is supplied – it’s well made, with a plate that can be positioned to adjust the protruding length, but keep in mind that the cable end is solid and needs tucking away somewhere – on the Shark Evo I mounted it on the bottom near the skirt, but you’ll need to check your helmet to find the best location; Arai’s firm-backed cheek pads make it hard to find a good spot.
While the boom mic is on a flexible arm that can be positioned just how you want it, on some full-face helmets (which don’t have a very large chin area – Arai especially), it’s just too big, and scrapes down your head as you put the helmet on.
We had to fit the wired microphones, which cost an additional £11.99 each and should be available from your dealer through the UK distributor, Pama. They’re also available mail-order from Pama, but postage puts another £5 on top.
Once fitted, the Cardo is one of the neatest intercoms I’ve used, fitting snug against the side of the helmet and protruding very little. It’s a very neat design, yet you can still quickly and easily remove the main unit if you want; the clip that holds it in is well made, using a proper sprung pivot, rather than flexible plastic.
The Cardo can be attached to the helmet with an adhesive bracket or a clip-on one
The printed quick-start guide supplied helps with connecting to your phone or sat-nav, as well as the other intercom (Duo packs come pre-paired, but if you reset the device you’ll need to set it up again).
Once paired to your phone, you can use the Cardo app, but the full instruction manual isn’t available to read on there – something of an oversight. You will need to read the full instructions carefully if you’re pairing a phone AND a GPS; it’s too easy to replace one with the other if you don’t read the main manual very carefully. I missed one button press when trying to do it from the quick-start guide and kept losing the connection to my phone.
The connections have generally roven solid, though when I have my Samsung Galaxy S10 connected to my TomTom for data and calls and to the Cardo for music, as well as the second Freecom 1+ paired and connected for chat, the GPS connection to my intercom randomly drops out (so I lose spoken directions and audible speed camera alerts). It’s not clear which device is at fault – turning the Cardo off and on again sees the link re-established, but there’s no obvious pattern as to when it’ll then disappear again.
GPS instructions (when connected) override the chat, so the other user might wonder why you’ve gone silent, but the connection is automatically re-established. Because the sat nav is talking to you most when you’re in a town – and that’s where you’re more likely to be chatting to each other – I tended not to worry about the fact that my audio direction connection would drop out as I turned them off; what was frustrating was that speed camera warnings aren’t heard when the connection drops.
Without the second intercom, I’ve had no issues with playing music and getting my TomTom’s alerts.
Cardo’s app works well and on my Android-based Galaxy S10 gave a stable connection for changing settings. If you have your phone mounted on the bars or in a tank bag you can use it to control the intercom. Otherwise, there are four buttons on the far edges of the front face – you can find them by the small ridges, which while harder to locate with thick gloves on, are well spaced so it’s hard to press the wrong one.
Accessing functions requires a variety of presses – a tap, long press or double-tap. It takes some learning, but works fine. You can also answer a phone call or start an intercom conversation by shouting ‘Hey’. This isn’t quite reliable enough for me at speed, so I tend to just tap the relevant button. I also found that, when I was out for a ride with my mate and had the Freecom 1+ on, whenever we stopped and chatted to each other (he didn’t have an intercom), the Cardo would keep giving two dull beeps to tell me it was trying to start an intercom conversation with my wife’s Freecom, but couldn’t find it. I’ve turned the voice feature off as it’s not as useful as the full voice control for features like “play music” found on other (higher priced) devices.
Starting a chat between two intercoms is simply a matter of tapping the front button then waiting up to four seconds for the tone that says you’re connected. Either user can initiate or disconnect a chat, and while that lag may seem a lot, it’s only noticable if you’re swapping between music and a chat; most of the time we leave the intercom connected as it only transmits when one of you speak.
The person connected to the phone can also share the music they’re listening to – either rider can cancel that share.
The audio quality from the Freecom 1+ is very good. In intercom mode, the fact that you only hear each other when one of you speaks (or coughs) means that it’s not distracting over even a long ride, but you can easily chat about anything when you want. I occasionally noticed a very faint rhythmic clicking sound in the background of speech, but this could be interference from anything, and it’s not annoying.
At speeds of up to around 50mph on the Versys, speech is clear. Up to 70-85mph, we need to shout to be heard, but most of the reason for that is buffeting from the screen. The Versys doesn’t have a bad screen by any stretch but if I stand up into a clean wind blast, 70mph is fine. Equally, if I tuck behind the screen audio is drastically improved at speed.
The quality you get will be very much down to your bike, but the audio from the Cardo is as good or better than other devices I’ve used, and with the way it only goes ‘live’ when it detects speech, it’s very unobtrusive.
The supplied 40mm speakers give really good sound. I always wear earplugs, so any intercom has to be able to drive hard enough for me to enjoy music through them. The Cardo is just off full volume to be great for me to listen to music at speed, and it’s very good quality. Of course you won’t be able to discern all the highs and lows you’d get through a set of quality headphones while sat in your lounge, but the Cardo rates as one of the best devices I’ve used for listening to music on the bike.
One handy tip, at least on an Android device, is to set a routine that automatically puts your phone to full volume when the Cardo is connected by Bluetooth – on the S10 I used Bixby routines.
The Cardo has its own adjustable auto-gain that works very well to increase the output volume according to riding speed; unlike others I’ve used, it’s almost transparent, somehow finding just the right balance to keep sound clearly audible and comfortable at all speeds.
The JBL upgrade speakers are larger than the ones that come with the Freecom 1+
Cardo has formed a partnership with premium audio brand JBL (which is part of the Harman group, owned by Samsung) to offer upgrade speakers for the Cardo devices and any other intercoms that uses a 3.5mm TRS speaker connection. TRS relates to the layout of the plug – Tip, Ring, Shield.
Costing £84.98, the pair of speakers are 45mm in diameter, with a 42mm base, so they should fit into most helmet recesses. But they are thicker than other speakers, so while the base might fit, they could press hard against your head. If you need to use the spacers for standard speakers to move them closer to your ears, you should be fine with these, but in the Arai Profile V, Arai Debut and Shark Evo One they were too thick for our heads. As always, fit will depend very much on the helmet and the wearer.
The speakers come with a QR code that you scan into your phone to apply a custom JBL profile to your intercom. I first tried this without swapping the speakers, and could hear little difference – if anything, the OE 40mm drivers were a little muddied, possibly as they were being driven harder to suit the 45mms.
With the upgraded speakers in, there’s a little more bass and a slightly fuller sound, but it’s not the leap you’d perhaps expect. You have to be realistic about the environment that these speakers are working in – you’re sat in a 70mph wind with earplugs in your ears, so any subtle improvements will be lost.
Once the JBL profile is installed on your device, it can’t be turned off or removed, even with a hard reset. On the 1+ you just get one ‘standard’ JBL profile. Other Cardo devices, like the Packtalk, offer three profiles – standard, bass boost and vocal.
As it is, I found the Cardo Freecom 1+ to be loud and clear enough as standard; adding the upgraded speakers just made it less comfortable with no obvious leap in quality.
Designed as a rider to pillion device only, the Freecom 1+ doesn’t have a useful range beyond about 10 metres; after this, it starts to break up as you speak, but you can sometimes get away with asking if your pillion wants a Snickers while you’re in the station paying for fuel.
Like every other intercom I’ve tested, the radio really isn’t that useful. Setting it at home it’s clear and has a good reception. Using the phone app to search for and set channels is a lot easier as you can’t skip search from one station to the next on the device – you can only skip to the next chosen preset (of six), or auto-scan, stopping at a frequency you like.
While RDS is an option that can be switched on, the Cardo won’t speak the frequency or name of the channel, and the auto tune doesn’t seem very effective at all. If you’re commuting within around a 20 mile radius, the radio’s okay, but for long journeys it’ll drop connection just like all the others (even Schuberths, with their antenna built into the lid).
Cardo claims up to a 13 hour battery life, and given how small the unit is, I’m very impressed. In testing, playing the same album on a loop at full volume, I saw nine hours. On the road we had a full day of chatting and listening to music, then were able to charge them both while we had dinner, ready for the next day.
If you did forget to charge them, they can be powered through their micro-USB port while you ride. The battery level is displayed on your connected smartphone and through the LED on the side changing colour; I’d have liked to have the unit speak the battery level at boot up and shut down, but I’ve not run out unexpectedly yet. A good battery life then, and grat considering the small form.
You can register the device on your phone, but you’ll still need to plug the Freecom 1+ into a computer to run updates. Once in this ‘Cardo Community’ page, updates are very easy and can be carried out on a Mac or a PC.
Updating via the app would be ideal, but you need to plug the Cardo into a computer to do it; not ideal, but it is a simple and reliable process that only takes a few minutes. Realistically, you’re unlikely to need to do it more than two or three times in the lifetime of the device, so it’s not an issue like it is on sat-navs.
Cardo faces some stiff competition from the other premium brands – not least Sena – and the budget options available from Amazon and eBay. But like its premium counterparts, here you’re paying for very impressive noise cancellation and usability.
The Cardo is hampered by the need to spend more on a wired microphone if you need one, which appears to be a step to help differentiate the company’s product range; a single 2+ is only £30 more and includes a wired mic – that’s only an £18 difference if you need to buy the mic (£13 if you have to pay postage), so it might make sense to pay the extra if there’s any chance you might want to connect to other riders in the future. Just keep in mind that the 2+ has a range limited to 500m, whereas the £234.99 4+ is 1.2km (in real life, you have to expect less from either).
Having tested it in torrential rain for 100 miles, I can confirm the Freecom 1+ is waterproof, and despite it being at the upper end of the price bracket, and the glitch in the GPS notifications when connected for chat, the standard audio performance, battery life and slim form make the Freecom 1+ an impressive piece of kit.
For a rider who only wants their own connection to phone and GPS the Cardo gives great audio quality, while for a rider and pillion like us, it’s easy to operate and unobtrusive enough that we now use it on every trip together.