May 08

Tandem Headset Review

by in Stuff

This article originally appeared in the printed Doubletalk Magazine in 2012 and then migrated to the Tandem Club’s website.

We’ve been riding tandem since 1999. My Captain has a hereditary hearing loss so having some assisted listening device has been essential to our happiness riding together. In case you’ve never run into a tandem headset, it’s simply a way to make it easier for the Captain and Stoker to hear each other in wind and traffic without yelling at each other all the time. Typically there’s a pack that resides in the Captain’s back pocket that you both plug into. There used to only be two such devices available, Tandem Talk and Tandem-Com. And while one of those is gone now, there are finally new options to choose from.

We first learned about Tandem Talk shortly after beginning to ride tandem. They were a small family owned company who custom built a simple and affordable device ($80) that worked quite well. It was a wired device with an on-off switch and no volume control. The headset was in-the-ear and could be used in either ear though we preferred the right so our traffic-facing ears were unencumbered. The first time our Tandem Talk died was less than a week before we were heading to Europe to ride. They were SO accommodating, rushing us a new one overnight in time for the trip. Sadly, the company no longer exists. Therefore, as our old device is on its last legs after crossing the country with us this summer, we’ve been on a quest for a suitable replacement.

The only other long-standing device is the Tandem-Com. We tried that early on and found we preferred the Tandem Talk. Tandem-Com offers both a wired and wireless option and runs $369. We were comparing the wired version and didn’t like the fact that the volume needed to be adjusted every time it was turned on, and that the headset covered the left rather than the right ear.

Thankfully technology is catching up. For a long time now there’ve been Bluetooth devices for motorcyclists and if you search the web there are riders who’ve jerry-rigged the motorcycle headsets to work on bicycle helmets. That is no longer necessary. As of this season, the company who makes motorcycle headsets has developed a system for cyclists. We tried one out recently called Cardo BK-1 Duo. It had a transmitter that straps on the top of your helmet. Because it’s Bluetooth it has the advantage of being able to hookup with a smart phone, MP3 player and/or GPS so you can take calls and get directions in your ear. Sadly a brief test ride with this system left us unimpressed. There was a tinny echo and slight delay as we spoke to each other which was annoying. We found it completely unusable. UPDATE: As of mid-2017 this system is no longer available. There are other BlueTooth options out there but since we found them unacceptable we haven’t evaluated any of the new ones. See note below about one such option.

On to the next option: from Eartec in Rhode Island (my home state). They’ve been around a long time and build headsets for a wide assortment of specialized purposes. The Simultalk Cycle-Com Wireless System runs $300. It’s no longer on their website but they still have them available. Contact Eartec directly.  So far this system is a keeper.

Pros

  • Great natural sound
  • Comfortable lightweight headsets
  • Wireless and works up to 150 ft
  • Optional headset upgrade
  • Can carry a pre-charged backup battery for longer rides
  • It has a series of dip switches so the two packs can be set to communicate with each other on a unique channel that won’t compete with your Garmin or other technology. It took us a couple of rides to realize that’s why my heart rate monitor and cadence were no longer working. But with a little trial and error we ironed it out in no time.

Cons

  • The volume is controlled with the on switch so has to be reset with every use.
  • The battery pack can only be charged in the unit (takes 6 hours and should not be left charging more than 12 hours).
  • The battery pack will only last for about 4-5 hours of talk time, longer in standby mode.
  • The headset that comes with it is a left ear headset.
  • We tried the upgraded headset which costs more and is a right ear headset but it hurt the top of our ear where it sat.

On the horizon is a system out of Sweden called the Hiod. They don’t have it licensed for US sales yet so we haven’t tried it yet. Judging only from the website it looks to be an innovative and unique approach. Only time will tell how it performs and what it costs. Meanwhile, we are thrilled to have found the Eartec solution and hope you’ll find this information useful.

UPDATE (Summer 2015)

We are still using the Eartec device and find they need the batteries swapped every 4 hours. On longer rides this is somewhat tedious. It’s also a bit annoying to only be able to charge the batteries inside the device and the 6-12 hour window means one must plan your charging times. We now carry the wired TandemCom pack as a backup which has been helpful. Now that we’re comparing the sound to the wireless Eartec the wired TandemCom actually offers superior sound quality. Though it’s also not ideal to switch between wireless and wired. I still prefer having a wireless device. I hope someday someone will design the PERFECT solution, which none of these offer. If you find something please let me know!

UPDATE (Spring 2017)

I was contacted recently to see if I had any updates. I didn’t. But decided to see what was happening out there. Sadly, not much. The Hiod mentioned at the end of the original post is nowhere to be found now. Our Eartec batteries no longer charge. I contacted them and they said they’re discontinuing this model because the technology has “advanced” and they can include it all in the headset. I looked at the headset and laughed. It’s huge and would not work with a helmet. They assured me they’re working on a belt-pack that is due out this summer and we’d be able to continue to use our existing headsets that work with a helmet. There’s a new Bluetooth option Terrano-X that some might find acceptable. Our experience when testing BT in the past was unacceptable. With the close proximity of the captain and stoker the BT delay is disturbing as you hear both. But “your mileage may vary” so  check ’em out. If anyone finds another great solution, we’re all ears.

UPDATE (June 2017)

We bought a new headset. I’ve posted a whole new review about it.

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