I don’t do a lot of reviews on this blog. Partially, that’s because I tell everyone who asks about sending me something my policy on returning stuff, which is: “I don’t return anything.” I used to have good intentions and intend to return things, but I finally realized that I’m just too lazy to re-box anything and send it back.
Part of it is that I’m not qualified to review many things.
Part of it is that when I review stuff, it brings out my cranky side; for no reason I can adequately explain, I tend to get downright mean when I start reviewing things. Sometimes after reviewing something, it takes me days to return to my incredibly loveable normal self.
And part of it is that most of the time someone sends me a press release with a “Contact me for more information if you’re interested,” I don’t contact the PR person. Because I’m not interested.
In the case of the Cardo BK-1, however, I was interested. Because the Cardo BK-1 is a new mike / speakers / radio setup designed for bike helmets. Using them, a couple (or three) riders are supposed to be able to easily talk with each other, hands-free. Not to mention listen to music or take calls on your phone via Bluetooth.
I liked the idea of being able to talk with other riders without shouting over wind noise, and then having to repeat myself – or shouting at the other rider to repeat herself – several times over.
So I said I’d be interested in trying these out. [Full Disclosure: Cardo sent me two of the Cardo BK-1 DUO at no charge. However, lots of people send me stuff at no charge, with no assurance I will write anything. I only write about stuff I really like, or really hate.]
In Short: What It Does
The BK-1 uses a combination of Bluetooth (to stream audio to and from your phone) and radio (to communicate with other BK-1) devices to communicate “up to 500 yards” (we never got that good of range before losing each other entirely, and when mountain biking would lose each other whenever a bend or rise in the mountain would make it so we didn’t have each other in line-of-sight).
The BK-1 is full-duplex, which means you can talk and hear at the same time, so you can interrupt each other and stuff. Each set also has an A and B channel, which means that if there are two of you, you can each use your B channel to listen to music or take a phone call (or listen to GPS voice instructions from your phone). If there are three people using BK-1s, one of the people has to act as the conferencing hub, using both A and B channel (so no background music for that person).
The BK-1 is supposed to get seven hours of talk time, and while we haven’t tested out the BK-1 for that long of a ride (yet!), we have tested it out for three- and four-hour rides with near-continuous talk; on a full charge, I expect you could get at least five hours of conversation on the BK-1. The radio uses a rechargeable battery, recharged via a micro-USB port (through which firmware updates will eventually also be available).
The BK-1 is voice-activated, so when you want to talk, just talk to wake the system up and start talking.
One of the things I liked about the BK-1 was apparent when I first opened the carrying case (the packaging for the product is also a zippered, padded carrying case, which is useful as well as not wasteful): it comes with lots of “spare” parts for the headset, as if they knew that in the real world, little parts can wear out or get lost. So there’s an extra spongy windguard thingy for the mike boom. There are a lot of extra adhesive-backed Velcro strips for mounting the headphone-like speakers and mike. And there are various lengths of Velcro straps for mounting the radio on the top of your helmet (along with a good instruction book describing how to route those straps on different kinds of helmets).
As it turned out I would need some of those spare parts before I ever used the BK-1 for the first time, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The BK-1 is easy to set up. Peel the adhesive backing off a couple Velcro strips and stick them to the inside left and right sides of your helmet, toward the back. Wait ten minutes for the adhesive to cure, then stick the left speaker – which is at the end of a flexible gooseneck-y cable so you can easily position it by your ear – to the Velcro inside your helmet. Do the same thing for the speaker / mike boom on the right side of the helmet. Then strap the radio to the top of your helmet, and plug the wires from each side of the headset into the radio.
So all that’s fine, so far. It only took a few minutes, so your helmet now looks like this:
But there are some things about the setup process that you should take into account if you’re going to get yourself a BK-1:
- Size matters . The first helmet I tried setting the Cardo BK-1 up on was my Giro Prolight helmet, which does not have adjustable straps, nor any real padding. It’s a very minimal helmet, and either fits you or it doesn’t (it fits me just great and is so light as to truly feel like I have no helmet on at all). With the Velcro straps and the headset attached on the inside, my already-snug ProLight wouldn’t fit at all anymore. So if your helmet is already a close fit and cannot be adjusted with smaller pads and loosened straps, the BK-1 may push your helmet into the too-small category. (I was able to set up the BK-1 on my other helmet and make it fit without difficulty by simply loosening the Roc-Loc strap on the back of the helmet).
- You’ll want it to be permanent : Setting the headset up only takes a few minutes, but I can’t imagine taking a few minutes to attach a radio to my helmet, attaching two speakers to the helmet, routing the speaker cables through the vents and then plugging them in . . . every time I wanted to use the BK-1. It would be too much of a hassle.
- It’s got to be permanent anyway : When I tried to peel apart the Velcro attaching the speaker to the helmet, the Velcro attached to the inside of the helmet came off instead. It wasn’t because the adhesive was weak, either. No, the problem is that the Styrofoam in your helmet is weaker than the adhesive and the Velcro, so that’s what lets go first. (This wasn’t an isolated incident, either; the IT Guy had the exact same thing happen to him).
- Pairing: Radios have to be paired to each other. It’s pretty easy to do, but since it involves looking at flashing lights on your helmet, it’s something you’ve got to do before you put the helmet on, obviously.
So basically, if you’re planning to use the BK-1, you should probably dedicate a helmet to it. Pick (or get) one that has room to be adjusted for size, then set up the BK-1 really well (tie down the otherwise free-floating cables, for example) and just leave it on there, ready to use whenever you want to ride and talk with others.
Just Riding Along
Once you’ve got the BK-1 mounted to your helmet, the hard part is really over. Turning the system on is a 1-button push, and adjusting the speakers so they’re near your ears is as simple as bending them into place – you can either place them right by your ears (the way I prefer) or with some extra distance between them and your ears (the way The Hammer and The IT Guy prefer).
Either way, the first thing you notice as you ride and start talking with each other is that . . . the BK-1 works great. You can hear each other really well – nice, clear and loud (volume is adjustable by big, easy-to-find buttons on the top of the radio).
Wind noise – which I assumed would be an enormous problem with a helmet-mounted intercom – is no problem whatsoever.
You don’t have to talk in an abnormally-loud, especially clear voice. You just talk. In fact, you can talk quietly. Even whisper. So talking while riding doesn’t take anywhere near the lung power it normally does. And since the headset consists of speakers near your ears instead of in your ears, you don’t get the isolating effect you normally get with headphones; you can hear ambient sounds just fine.
Voices aren’t “clipped” (when the beginning or end of something someone says is cut off), either – something I was worried would be a problem.
Since a radio and two speakers are added to the weight of the helmet, I was concerned that weight would be a problem – kind of like the way a helmet-mounted light or camera starts feeling heavy on your head (or makes your helmet shift into a bad position) after a few hours. The BK-1, though, has its weight distributed around the helmet (with the speaker weight essentially balancing each other out) well enough that I haven’t noticed a weight problem yet.
Basically, the BK-1 makes it really nice and easy for people who are riding together to actually hold a conversation, without having to ride side-by-side (a problem on the road), or right on top of each other (a problem on the dirt).
Of course, this is a first-generation product, and so using the BK-1 wasn’t always totally perfect. When we got far enough apart to lose signal between each other, re-connecting was sometimes automatic when we got back to within range, and sometimes it wasn’t. At that point, we’d have to press the channel button to re-connect, but the re-connect process was slow enough that we’d start to wonder whether we’d done it right and press the button again, thus probably starting the process over.
The buttons have LED status indicators telling you the connection status, but they’re hard to see in daylight, and in any case, they’re on top of your head so you can’t see them yourself anyway. Maybe a voice interface would make more sense for something like this?
While voice levels were always nice and loud, the volume level for music streamed over Bluetooth comes in very quiet. (A related wish: it’d be really nice to have the option to have music continue streaming behind voices.)
The most persistent problem, however, was interference when we were mountain biking. When there was a hill or bend or rock or thick trees between riders, audio would get very sketchy or drop out altogether. Our rule of thumb became that the BK-1 was great as long as you had each other in view.
The strangest problem, though, would be when we stopped close to each other and talked. I was worried there would be a terrible feedback problem when this happened, but there was none of this at all. It was just peculiar to hear the other person’s actual voice, followed a split second later by the voice coming through your speakers.
Oh, and when we stopped and talked to strangers on the side of a trail, they looked at us as if were were space aliens.
Which, of course, I am.
You’d almost have to buy these in pairs (that’s the BK-1 DUO), unless you and all your friends are buying these. Or if you were buying it specifically as a solution for listening to music and talking on the phone while on your bike.
We actually really like these BK-1s. Since we’ve gotten them, The Hammer and I have used them on every ride we’ve been on together. If you want to talk while you ride, and are tired of yelling “What?” over wind and road / trail noise, you’ll find these a really effortless way to chat while on the bike.
It’s surprising how quickly I’ve gotten used to using the BK-1. The Hammer and I went on a 4.5 hour ride last weekend, but – wanting to see how long the batteries would last – didn’t charge the batteries before we started the ride. So, about three hours into the ride, the batteries died. After the ride, we both remarked how we had gotten used to being able to just say something in a quiet voice, and have the other person hear it.
Is the Cardo BK-1 necessary? Totally not. But – especially if you like combining conversing with your cycling – it’s fun. And you get used to having it amazingly quickly. The Hammer and IT Guy especially like these – he’s a chatterbox, and she loves catching up with her son while riding. Maybe this’ll come off as a little cheesy, but the BK-1 can bring a little more “quality” to your riding quality time.
What you say to one another is of course up to you, but I recommend continuous heavy breathing. Or yelling, nonstop, “Venga! Venga! Venga!”
Or possibly, in the lowest voice you can muster, “Luke. I am your father.”
The Cardo BK-1 costs $274.95; the BK-1 DUO ( which comes with two of the headsets) is $479.95. For more information and where to buy, go to the Cardo BK-1 website here.