Bitwave USA has asked me to write a review of their new UCLEAR hands-free Bluetooth helmet communicators. I’ve been testing the HBC100 model for a while now and the initial results are impressive. According to the UCLEAR literature the HBC100 is “the World First ‘boom-less’ microphone helmet communicator for the action sport enthusiast. Incorporating advanced communication technology developed for military and industrial applications, UCLEAR’s HBC series Bluetooth Helmet Communicators provide a wireless, hands-free communication system that suppresses mild to extreme environmental noise such as wind, highway and machine noise, allowing the user’s voice to be clearly heard in all conditions. Users can make and receive mobile calls, listen to and wirelessly control music and speak helmet-to-helmet via intercom with another UCLEAR unit”. UCLEAR makes a variety of units for everything from skiing to motorcycling to bicycling. The HBC100 is the motorcycling unit.
Installation: Installation for this unit could not be simpler and I was quite impressed, total installation time was about 5 minutes! There are 3 steps required: 1) mount 2 speakers inside your helmet 2) mount the control unit outside the helmet 3) pair the unit with a Bluetooth enable device (cell phone/mp3 player/gps):
1) Mounting the speakers inside a helmet:
The HBC100 features a boom-less microphone system, meaning the mics are built into the speakers. This simplifies installation given that there is no bulky mic chord that needs to be threaded through you helmet lining as with most communicators.
The two small speakers are placed in the helmet speaker cutout areas (most modern helmets come with speaker cutouts) using very strong adhesive backed Velcro. This was a huge feature for me given that I’ve used other communicators whose mounting methods were less than ideal. Mount one speaker (be sure to mount the correct speaker on the correct side so the wire lead ends up on the left side of your helmet where the unit needs to be mounted), thread the wire connecting the two speakers behind the helmet lining, then mount the remaining speaker making sure to leave the plug that connects to the main unit hanging outside the lining.
2) Mounting the main unit to the side of a helmet:
The HBC100 comes with 2 methods of securing it to the outside of a helmet. One method is a clip type in which 2 small wire handles are attached to the clip (to aid opening it), once the clip is closed around the edge of the helmet the wire handles are removed. There is also a mount which simply sticks to the side of the helmet with strong adhesive tape. The unit then simply slides on and off the mounting bracket. I used the clip mount, I just feel better using a clip given that I ride in all weather and worry about adhesive being compromised by the elements. This thin compact unit extends only around a half-inch from the side of the helmet, which is impressive.
3) Bluetooth pairing:
Pairing the HBC100 to a Bluetooth enabled device (in my case a Blackberry Curve) takes about a minute. All that is needed to “pair” the HBC100 to a Bluetooth enable device is to turn on the main unit, turn on the Bluetooth device (and make sure Bluetooth is enabled), hold the up and down buttons simultaneously on the HBC100 for 2 seconds and wait until the units are paired (the unit will blink red and blue until paired, once paired it will blink blue and you will get confirmation from both devices). It could not be simpler. Once the two are paired you initiate playback of audio content on your device and it is streamed into your HBC100 speakers. Pairing need only be done once for each device you pair. UCLEAR recommends not pairing more than 3 devices. If you intend to use 2 HBc100’s for rider to passenger communication you will need to pair the 2 units: with each unit turned off, press and hold the call button and up button on one unit for 5 seconds, on the other unit press and hold the call button and down button for 5 seconds. The 2 units should then be paired (the indicator will blink blue on each). This step couldn’t be easier.
Playback: The HBC100 has only 3 buttons which makes controlling the unit simple and easy. If you are listening to music and a call comes in the unit emits an audio signal and playback is automatically paused. You can then simply press the call button to answer the call or speak if your phone is setup for voice answering, in addition you can ignore the call by holding the call button for 2 seconds. When music is playing you can pause (call button once) or skip tracks and adjust volume using one of the control buttons (one click for volume, 2 clicks to skip ahead or back).Sound quality: My initial tests have been impressive. Streaming music quality is significantly better than similar wired units I’ve tried. Similarly sound quality in initial tests in a rider to passenger environment is of high quality. In a photo shoot I used the HBC100 to stay in touch with the photographer on the road to set up shots. She remarked at what little wind noise she heard (even with my shield up) and how clear the conversation sounded. I’ll admit I had read other reviews which claimed the buttons were hard to find; but I didn’t find that to be the case. Wearing winter gloves (it was below 40f here in Pennsylvania) I was able to answer each call on the first attempt.
Charging: Charging the HBC100 can be done using an included USB connection or included AC adapter. The USB is great for commuters like myself who travel with laptops, on longer trips simply toss the AC adapter in with your gear. There are lights on the unit to indicate when it is fully charged and a low battery indicator and auto power off so you need not be caught without power. This is an impressive feature as I’ve used units without such features and have occasionally have been left without a charge.
Things to remember: Bluetooth capability limits range to 30 feet or so. So while it is possible to use 2 HBC100’s on 2 separate motorcycles, if those bikes get much further apart than 30 feet apart the connection will be lost. You can try to re-initiate the conversation by saying “hello” loud and clear but in some cases you will have to manually re-initiate the connection. The only slight problem I had was when I paired the HBC100 and HBC130 (intended for bicycle use which I am also testing). The two products are very similar and my Blackberry got confused between the two which resulted in a loss of music streaming capability. This is a very minor problem and is easily remedied by making sure the pairing is with the right unit before setting out or simply switching the pairing by disconnecting from one and connecting to the other (easily done from the Bluetooth enabled cell phone/mp3/gps). The unit has no audio inputs, which means it will only stream music and calls via Bluetooth. Devices without Bluetooth capability (such as my old Zen) will not function with the HBC10, however, Uclear does offer an add-on unit that will convert a non-bluetooth signal to bluetooth. You do not need a Bluetooth enabled device to use rider/passenger intercom (since both HBC100 units are Bluetooth enabled) but for music/gps and cell phone use you will. Also, each box purchased includes 1 unit. So for rider/passenger intercom use you will need to purchase 2 units separately.
Summary: The HBC100 is an impressive, high quality, competitively priced product. I am most impressed with the ease of installation and the fact that once the unit is installed it stays installed, there are no wires, obstructions, moving speakers hurting your ears and no microphones to watch out for when putting your helmet on. The unit slides off my helmet easily for charging. I have used other units with poorly designed mounting brackets which have broken easily. The HBC100 mount is cleverly designed and seems sturdy and permanent. The HBC100 is an impressive unit and I recommend it. Cori and I will not miss the tedious need to plug/unplug our old unit every time we stopped the bike. The unit is small, stylish and waterproof, sleek, attractive and very easy to use. This unit is now part of my gear. Nicely done.
You can find out more and purchase on line at the UCLEAR store.