Cardo's back in black!
Cardo Systems has been in the Bluetooth-powered ear candy business for almost 20 years now. Founded in 2003, the company's first product—the Scala—was a Bluetooth earpiece designed to be used with contemporary cell phones. In 2004, Cardo released the Scala Rider, the world's first Bluetooth headset built specifically for motorcycle helmets. From there, the company went on to pioneer long-range Bluetooth intercoms, headset music sharing, and the extremely handy Dynamic Mesh Communication system.
Nowadays, Cardo is a world leader in motorcycle comms technology, with six products spread across two lines—Freecom and Packtalk. The lower-priced, entry-level Freecom line—Freecom 1+, 2+, and 4+—offers quality sound and a good selection of features at a reasonable price. The fancier, more fully-featured Packtalk line—Slim, Black, and Bold—features DMC tech, JBL speakers, extended range comms, and all sorts of bells and whistles.
Personally, I've had a Freecom 4+ for a while now and I've been impressed with it (it features the JBL speakers, too). So, when Cardo called me up and offered to let me test the Backtalk Black, I was more than willing to give it a chance. After installing it in my new Arai Corsair X, I took the Packtalk Black out and ran it through its paces while shooting photos of our long-term Indian FTR1200 review bike. So, how is it? Let's have a look.
What's In The Box?
Cardo's Packtalk Black is a special, blacked-out edition version of the company's top of the line Packtalk Bold. Like all of Cardo's products, it comes in a thoughtfully-designed package (seriously, I love Cardo's presentation) with everything you need to install the unit in your favorite lid. Along with the Packtalk unit itself, the kit comes with two mics—one for full-face helmets and a boom mic for open-face and modular lids—two mounting options (permanent and clip-on), charging cables, various manuals, and the speakers.
Like the rest of the Packtalk line (and the Freecom 4+) the Black comes with fancy shmancy JBL-designed speakers. The Black's big 45mm drivers come with foam covers and Velcro-backed spacers which allow you to fit them properly to your lid. The sound quality is excellent, which I've come to expect from Cardo's offerings. The speakers' dynamic range is impressive, especially considering their intended use inside a noisy, windy environment, and you can actually hear your music's midrange and low-end. With Cardo, you hear more than the hi-hat, snare, lead guitar, and the singer's falsetto range.
The unit itself is larger than I expected; definitely bigger than my compact Freecom unit. It's a solidly-built, gloss-black trapezoid with a center-mounted LED and some matte-black detailing and an extremely subtle Cardo logo printed in dark, dark gray. (Packtalk BLACK, get it?). The bottom-mounted micro-USB charging port is covered by a rubber plug, and there's a pop-up antenna for the intercom along the unit's top.
Unlike its competitors—and its Freecom cousins—the Packtalk Black is completely waterproof. With an Ingress Protection Code of 67, the unit can stand up to dusty or gritty environments, mud, sand, and can even be completely submerged and still keep working. That kind of hardcore protection means you can ride through the pouring rain or do a bit of offroading (or a lot, I'm not one to judge) and not worry about destroying your comms system.
The Packtalk Black's suite of features can be broken down into two general categories—audio and intercom. The audio category includes the unit's ability to sync to a user's smartphone, its control over smartphone functions such as music, phone calls, and navigation, and various sound and volume settings. Intercom is, as it says on the tin, the unit's ability to connect via Bluetooth or DMC to riders within a given range.
Since I'm primarily a solo rider, even in non-global pandemic times, my experience with the Packtalk Black was limited to its audio features. Syncing your phone to the unit is no more difficult than pairing any other Bluetooth accessory. Once connected, Cardo's Cardo Connect app allows you to customize your listening experience and keep your unit updated with the latest firmware. Once paired up and running, you can control the unit via voice commands (which I'll talk about in a sec here) or through the unit's physical controls.
The Black's physical controls are extremely simple. The three small buttons on the unit's face control most of the Black's functions—power, connections, radio controls, etc. Instead of a scroll wheel, the Black features a large, rubber-coated cylinder as its multi-function scroller/button. Its size and location on the unit's rear make it super easy to locate and use with riding gloves on, and the soft ratchets built into its mount provide just enough feedback to let you know its working.
The Natural Voice command system is, unfortunately, a mixed bag. Like other comms units I've used, from both Cardo and other manufacturers, you allegedly only need a simple greeting—in this case, "Hey, Cardo!"—to activate voice commands. The problem I ran into is that half the time the unit can't hear what I'm saying. When I'm sitting at idle—or, better yet, when the bike's off and my surroundings are quiet—the Packtalk always responds to voice commands. With just a little bit of engine or wind noise, though, forget about it. I occasionally got the Packtalk to listen to me by cupping my hand over my helmet's chin bar to block the wind, but even that wasn't a guarantee. What I'm saying here is that the Packtalk's voice command system listens about as well as my kids do, and is just as infuriating when it ignores me.
Shaky voice command capabilities aside—and, honestly, it's not that big a deal for me—the rest of the Packtalk Black's suite of features is pretty, well, sweet. When paired with your phone you can listen to music (either streaming or radio), take calls, follow your navigator's instructions, and get all the other infotainment goodness you expect out of a comms system. You can even share music and calls with a passenger or with any rider within comms range. The sound, as I mentioned earlier, is stellar and the benefits of Cardo's partnership with JBL are clear.
General listening volume can be adjusted by your phone and the unit, and you can even enter custom volume levels for different features—voice commands/announcements, notifications, radio, etc.—in the Cardo Connect app. Once your volume settings are locked in, Cardo takes it a step further with its automatic volume system which increases or decreases volume based on external ambient noise. That technology is pretty common on car stereos nowadays, but this is the first helmet comm system I've used that has it. It's a simple thing, but it always puts a smile on my face when I roll on the throttle and my music volume increases with my revs.
I didn't get to test out the Packtalk's intercom systems because, you know, I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel. Anyway, even though I don't really have an opinion on the intercom features I can still tell you a bit about it. The Packtalk's intercom can connect with up to 15 riders out to a range of roughly one mile and has a 13-hour talk time. Cardo claims that's the longest real range in the business, and I have no real reason to doubt it. You can play music over the intercom and pipe calls through it, which is a neat feature but not one I would get a lot of use out of. The unit can also connect to any big-name Bluetooth comms system, which means that not everyone in your group needs a Cardo to be involved in the conversation.
While it can communicate via Bluetooth, the Packtalk's real party trick is Cardo's Dynamic Mesh Communications. Instead of Bluetooth's rigid structure, DMC allows riders to come and go from a group chat without breaking the chat or needing to constantly re-sync. If you'd like to know more about how Mesh works and its various benefits, Cardo produced a helpful video you can check out.
I was really impressed with how easy the Packtalk Black was to install and to use while riding. Its size and control layout are more intuitive than other comms units I've used, even other Cardos. It combines form and function in a good-looking, easy to use package. It also sounds great. I know I keep talking about the sound quality, but it's what I care the most about when it comes to helmet comms systems and it's why I keep coming back to Cardo. With an MSRP of $389.95 it's pretty dear, but it's definitely worth it. If you have the means, I highly recommend it.