Me an my riding buddy Tom had a 2000 km / 1250 mi motorcycle trip coming up, and decided it would be nice to talk to one-another during the ride. So, we decided to get a motorcycle com set.
Sena vs Cardo
There are many motorcycle com sets out there, including numerous cheap Chinese ones, but we wanted to go for a proven, well known and reliable A-brand, even though you pay double or even more for those.
With this in mind there are really only two brands to consider. Sena and Cardo. Both brands recently came out with new models in their line-up. Sena released the Spider series, an affordable mesh communicator, while Cardo introduced their (non-mesh) Spirit and FreecomX series (not to be confused with the older Freecom+ series).
We decided to go for Cardo for three reasons:
- I had good past experience with the 10 year old Schubert SRC system (which is based on a Cardo Scala Rider)
- As developer of the Scenic Motorcycle Navigation app I frequently get feedback and questions about motorcycle com sets. Whenever users have problems with sound, 7 out of 10 times they have a Sena. Usually it’s just a setting or configuration option of some kind, so I’m not saying Sena’s are bad. But somehow they seem to be a tad more difficult to use / setup.
- Fortnine says Cardo is better (please note this video was made before the new models were released)
The Sena Spider has one big advantage over the Cardo: it has Mesh technology, which allows for more users to connect (up to 24 for the Sena Spider). The Freecom 4x uses bluetooth 5 for rider to rider communication, which allows for up to 4 users. For us, this doesn’t matter too much though. The times we’ve ridden with more than four people, can be counted with the fingers of one hand.
Why the Freecom 4x?
So now that we decided for Cardo, we had to decide on the model. Since we didn’t need Mesh, our choice was between the two Spirits and the two (new) Freecoms. We went for the top non-mesh model – the Freecom 4x – because (1) The Freecoms have Live Intercom, meaning if the connection gets interrupted it will try and reconnect automatically and (2) the 4x has Voice Commands, which the 2x does not have. Also, the Freecoms have better sound with JBL speakers, which the Spirits do not, and the 4x can connect up to 4, while the 2x connects max 2 people. These are the main differences. Check out the Cardo site for more details.
Please note that neither Tom nor I have any affiliation with Cardo. The units were bought with our own money, and these are our honest thoughts and opinions.
Cardo has a very good tutorial video for the FreecomX series, which also covers installation:
The tutorial video says installation takes about 20 minutes. I think this is a bit optimistic. Sure, if you do this all the time it will probably take you 20 minutes. It took us closer to an hour for each helmet. The most difficult part is finding the correct spot for the speakers. It takes a few tries. Take your time for this. It’s crucial that the speakers are right on top of your ears, otherwise sound quality and volume will be below par. The same goes for the microphone. The microphone is very sensitive to direction of where the sound is coming from, so it needs to be exactly in front of your mouth.
In the end though, installation was pretty straight forward. You don’t need any special equipment. Everything you need comes in the box. I installed my set in my Arai XD4. The Arai has space for the speakers in the cheek pads. Tip… install them UNDER the liner of the cheek pads. The Arai also has a vent directly in front of your mouth. I first tried with the microphone placed to the side of the vent, but it didn’t understand my voice commands very well like that. When placing the microphone directly above the vent it got a lot better. Tom has an X-Lite. We had to cut away a little bit of the styrofoam, because the speaker cut-outs on this helmet were a bit too small to fit the 40mm JBL speakers. With a small sharp knife this was an easy job as well though.
Setting up with the Cardo Connect app
Setting up with the Cardo Connect app is pretty straight forward. The above tutorial video explains it very well. We did have some problems connecting the two sets with one another though. At first they seemed to work fine, but then we tried the music sharing feature (where you can share the music you’re listening to with other units) but after that, for some reason, Tom could not hear what I said anymore. In the end we had to disconnect the two units from one another, unpair from our phones and then re-pair with our phones and reconnect the units again. We didn’t try music sharing again after that. I’m not sure if this was user error or a bug in the firmware. The good thing is, if it’s a bug in the firmware, Cardo will probably find and fix it, and bring out a firmware update. It’s very easy to update the firmware through the Cardo app. No need to connect the unit to a computer.
The rest of the app is pretty straight forward too. You can set your speed dial, your radio channels, pair with other units, select your music etc. It all works very intuitive. You can also use the Cardo app on your bike (if you have a phone mount and touch-enabled gloves of course). It has a handy “Quick Access” view with big buttons for the main functions. But honestly… you won’t need this for the 4x since this has Voice Commands. I could imagine it being useful for the Spirit or 2x, but even then, the three buttons on the unit itself can also do these “quick-access” functions.
Sound Quality and Volume
Not much to say about this. It’s just really good. The 40mm JBL speakers provide more than enough volume and bass for my taste. Even with earplugs in, at speeds I’m not willing to share here, I could still hear the music and intercom very well. The bass does get less audible at those speeds, with earplugs, but that’s to be expected. For the more legal speeds, the bass is outstanding. The 4x also offers three sound profiles (Bass boost, High Volume and Vocal), and the option to set relative volume levels per source. I had it set to the defaults. Bass boost and these settings:
Microphone quality and environment / wind noise
Again, an A+ for the Freecom 4x on this front. Remember that the microphone is very sensitive to the direction the sound is coming from? I believe this helps a lot in filtering out wind noise. Even though my microphone was placed directly above my helmet’s front air vent, Tom could understand me perfectly over the intercom (at legal speeds and not so legal speeds), and also my wife could understand me flawlessly when I called her while riding.
Voice Commands / Natural Voice
The Cardo Voice commands work very well at legal speeds. If speeds and wind noise increase, the Cardo has trouble understanding or recognizing the command. At high speed I sometimes had to repeat the command, speaking a lot louder and clearer, or duck behind my windscreen to reduce the ambient noise. There are some settings in the Cardo Connect app for this though, so perhaps a bit of tweaking could make that even better.
There’s one thing the Voice commands could improve on. Currently they are not very intelligent like Siri of Google. For example… the correct command to turn on the intercom is ‘hey Cardo call intercom‘. If you say ‘hey Cardo start intercom‘ or ‘hey Cardo intercom on‘, it does not work. It has to be the exact sentence. In total there are 22 voice commands.
All in all, I think the voice commands (or Natural Voice as Cardo calls it) is a HUGE benefit over the Freecom 2x and the Spirit series. Over our 2000km trip I used voice commands all the time. I never once used the buttons on the unit, other than to turn the unit on/off and the scroll wheel to turn the volume up or down (which just is easier and faster than saying ‘hey Cardo volume up‘ 5 times). I think that tells you something about how well the voice commands work.
I would call the range ‘sufficient’. If you are in line of sight from each-other, without obstacles in between, the range is more than enough. I estimate around 800 meters / 0.5 mi. However if there are obstacles, even dense vegetation, the range decreases fast. When we were riding in the mountains, and Tom disappeared around a corner, it didn’t last long before the connection would drop. I’d say that with obstacles the range drops to about 200 to 300 meters / 650 to 1000 ft. Still enough to warn for oncoming traffic, a turtle crossing the road (yes… this happened), potholes, cows, goats and other dangers on the road, but you’ll have to stay close to one-another. I’m not sure if Mesh is any better at this. If you have a mesh intercom, please feel free to leave a comment.
In the city the range is also a bit shorter due to traffic and buildings when going around corners, but since you stay pretty close to one another in these scenarios anyway this was not a problem for us. In fact… in the city and busy traffic the intercom turned out to be a very useful thing. Especially if only one of you has navigation and/or knows the way.
Auto-reconnecting does work, but to my taste the reconnection-attempt interval is a bit too long. Tom typically rides a bit faster than me, so whenever he got away from me I could hear my Cardo say “Rider A unavailable“. This was followed by the occasional beep every 15 seconds or so, indicating that the Cardo was trying to reconnect. Then I would see Tom again, and he’d be closer than 800 meters / 0.5 mi. More like 300 meters / 1000 ft or sometimes even 200 meters / 650 ft, and only at that point would the intercoms reconnect. I’m not sure how it works, but seems to me the Cardo tries to reconnect every X seconds. Perhaps that X should be a bit lower.
I’d say battery life is more than enough. Officially battery life is 13 hours. On our longest riding day (8 hours) my unit had 25% battery left. Of those 8 hours we were using the intercom for maybe 1 to 2 hours in total (we did not leave the intercom open all the time), and I listened to music for about 4 hours. Even if a full charge would not get you through a riding day, the unit charges really fast. According to the documentation a 20 min charge will give you an additional 2 hours. And if even that doesn’t get you through the day, you can charge the unit while using it. It simply requires a 5V connection (the port on the unit is a USB-C port).
If you are only interested in listening to music (and not the intercom functionality) then perhaps one of the lower models would suite you well enough (by far, the commands I used most were ‘hey Cardo call intercom‘ and ‘hey Cardo end intercom‘). Or, if you ride in bigger groups, then perhaps you are better off with a Mesh model. (Side note: Sena Mesh is not compatible with Cardo Mesh)
But, if you, like me and Tom, ride in small groups of up to 4 people and would like to use an intercom, then I would fully recommend the Cardo Freecom 4x . I have no regrets about this purchase. In fact, this was probably one of the best motorcycle related products I bought in a long time. It just works as advertised. And again, I would definitely recommend the 4x over the 2x or spirit models, simply because of the Voice Commands / Natural Voice.