When it comes to motorcycle communication, there are two standout brands: Cardo and Sena. It’s not at all surprising that these two companies are in an arms race, and the Packtalk Bold is Cardo’s newest volley in the battle for riding audio supremacy.
Cardo called in for reinforcements from audio giant JBL for this product, and the result sounds pretty damn good as far as I’m concerned.
(Full Disclosure: Cardo sent me the PackTalk Bold Duo Pack to test out. I installed one of the comm units on my Bell Moto III helmet. I’ve had it on for a few weeks and several hundred miles now. The other unit is still in the box, as I don’t have any local riding buddies. If you live in the Reno/Tahoe area and want to go for a ride together, I’ll give you the other one.)
As an extended disclosure, I have to admit, I’m about as far from an audiophile as you can get. I blasted my ears half to deaf with angsty tinny rock in my teens. I do have a hard time telling the difference between good and great audio quality, but I can definitely tell when it’s bad. And the sound coming out of the helmet earpieces in this Cardo kit ain’t bad at all.
Phone calls are crisp and clear, even at speed. Music, podcasts, and Waze directions play through this system as clear or clearer than any headphones this side of sealed earbuds or active noise cancelling over-ear cans.
Even in the high-noise environment of an open-face helmet like this Bell Moto III, the PackTalk has the power to overcome the wind. One of my favorite features is the automatic volume control which increases volume with speed and reduces volume as you come to a stop again. This is technology that has been in car stereos for at least twenty years, but dammit if I wasn’t surprised to hear it in this case.
The installation process for the PackTalk Bold is incredibly easy. There are two install options, one is a clip that slots into the edge of your helmet, the other a sticky-backed unit that seems more permanent. In either case the PackTalk is very slim and lightweight. The wires tuck into helmet foam and hide away pretty nicely. Then you velcro the JBL headphones into each side and pop the microphone somewhere in front of your mouth.
There are a couple of options for the microphone, including one on the end of a stick that reminds me of what the ShamWoW guy wore in his infomercials. I chose the little dot microphone that slotted in between the vents on the front of my helmet. You can either velcro it directly to your helmet, or in my case I had to install a little sticky-backed velcro square to stick it to as the front of the Bell is just hard foam.
I don’t like to spend much time fiddling with buttons while I’m riding. But even with a thick glove on, the Cardo’s controls are easy to find and manage. Then there’s a voice command system for everything else, which is extremely intuitive and makes for easy audio controls to my phone.
Anything relating to the Cardo unit can be accessed with “Hey Cardo,” followed by “music on,” or “volume up,” or “next track,” which is nice if you don’t want to take your hands off the bars. It also supports “Hey Siri,” and “OK Google,” commands depending on your phone. It’s always listening, so if I’m running late I can easily say “Hey Siri, call wife,” and the call goes through no problem. Bluetooth connection to my phone is very quick and easy, and once I set it up, has flawlessly connected instantly on startup every time.
The battery life on this thing is also impressive. Cardo claims a 13-hour talk time rating for this, and if you’re just using it for Bluetooth audio it’s even more than that. I can easily ride until my butt is numb and have plenty of battery life left to ride home. One minor downside I’ve found is that the unit will start telling you it has a low battery at around 40 percent battery. About every half hour it’ll just chime in to say “low battery” which gets slightly annoying.
The one major arrow in the Cardo PackTalk Bold’s quiver that I wasn’t able to test was the innovative mesh audio bike-to-bike communication. I generally ride solo, and don’t know many moto enthusiasts in my town. Apparently the Bluetooth daisy chain “DMC” system found in the PackTalk Bold is quite good, as reviewed by Rider Magazine, but I don’t have any personal experience, so I won’t make any claims.
The PackTalk Bold is pretty pricey with a $339.95 list price. But compared to some other options in the $250 range, it’s a big step up for features. With improved audio quality from JBL, seamless voice command, and local mesh communication software that has reviewed extremely well elsewhere, I’d say even at the full boat price, it’s worth the scratch.
Fortunately this thing can generally be found online for under $300 at a number of retailers. It’s available at Amazon right now for just $244 and change, in fact.
Something I can speak a bit more about is how it compares to the Sena 30K Bluetooth unit. The one I have is a Harley-Davidson-branded Boom Audio 30K, which is just a Sena unit with a bar and shield on it and a higher pricetag. Prior to using the Cardo I was really happy with the Sena, but now find it to be lacking in design and sound quality.
For one thing, while the large scroll wheel is nice to use with gloves on, it extends past the frame of the unit which means my volume is frequently turned up or down when I look over my shoulder for traffic, or looking both ways at an intersection. The Cardo’s volume scroll wheel is guarded on both ends to prevent such an event. It’s the little things.
It also didn’t seem to have as good of an audio quality or microphone quality, making en route phone calls much more difficult to understand. Phone integration and dynamic volume control are also lacking.
Because the body of the Sena extends downward, you can’t ever lay your helmet flat on a surface. It’ll always be precariously tilted, rocking on the Bluetooth unit. Again, it’s the little things that make the Cardo so much better, because the entirety of the PackTalk is up above the bottom of your helmet, so you can still sit it flat on the ground or a table.
The Sena isn’t a bad unit, but the Cardo blew it out of the water. I’m a big fan and would definitely recommend picking one up. If you frequently ride two-up, this could work as an excellent comms device for you and a passenger, it even allows you to share audio between the two units and party-line your phone calls!