My love for gadgets goes way back to when I was a kid and I used to read my father's Popular Mechanics magazines. After combing through all the little tiny ads in the back, I often dreamed of do-it-yourself go-karts, hover crafts, and one-man submarines. I was fascinated with all things mechanical and motorized. Perhaps if I actually read the articles, I might have gotten into engineering or some other career path. Instead, I ended up in Utah chasing the snow, but I still have that addiction to cool gadgets. Now that fascination has evolved to software and technology. The futurists who 30 years ago predicted that our world would be taken over by robots walking among us may not have been too far off. Walk down any busy crowded urban area, and you see robots wandering around, staring at their little screens, waiting for the next set of instruction and prompts. But I digress.
I recently received an offer to test out a new product on the market from a company called UCLEAR Digital. I have to disclose I didn't solicit this company, they found me from the Ski Utah blog, and my alter ego moto blog, http://itsallaboutthebike.com. UCLEAR makes several Bluetooth wireless communicator kits for various applications (ski helmets, motorcycle helmets, bicycle helmets) that all boast military noise-canceling technology, high quality speakers so you can rage with your tunes, and a full feature set of mobile calling and answering functions, such as voice command for calls pick-up. I was keen to try this gadget out, because I use a similar product on my motorcycle for helmet-to-helmet intercom, tunes, and mobile hands free gabbing on the iPhone. All this sounds great for listening to music, but their technology for hands-free microphones will absolutely blow you away. The UCLEAR system has no close-talk boom microphone that sticks out in front of your mouth, and that's a good thing, because if you were skiing with one of those things, well, you'd look like a tool. Instead, the two little microphones that are part of the speaker units bounce signals between each other and create a sweet spot that picks up your face. Not sure that it will work if you wear a tin foil hat, so you might want to leave that at home.
For Part 1 of this review, I'm going to focus on the product presentation and the installation first. Prior to even opening the box, I was thinking about how this would work with my Smith Variant Brim helmet, which already has the Single-Shot audio kit. The nice things about this kit, which features Skullcandy speakers built in to the earflaps, is it's simplicity. You just pop in the replacement earflaps, plug and play, and then connect your device to the wired controller. The downside is the sound is poor quality, and if you forget the little wire and controller, you are tuneless. I always seem to leave it in the pocket of my other jacket, you know, the one you are not wearing.
When I opened the UCLEAR box, I was sort of surprised. The little speakers/integrated mic were small and metal, with some velcro on the back side. I suppose the theory is you just stick them to the inner ear surface of your existing helmet earflaps. FLAW #1: this is not going to happen. They will be cold and uncomfortable. If they were meant to be installed another way, they might want to clear that up in the instruction manual. Since I had a spare earflap kit for my Smith helmet, I decided to do a little surgery and see what I could come up with. I was pleasantly surprised how easy this was to do.
With a sharp exacto-type knife, I undid the stitching on the stock earflaps, slid these little speakers in place between the foam and the cloth surface that touches your ear when the helmet is on. Voila, instant audio retro-fit kit. Fits as comfortably as the stock kit, and has a nice little cloth buffer between your ear and the hardware. I snapped the earflaps back in place. I thought about sewing up the earflaps to make this a permanent solution, but for testing, decided to leave them undone in case I need to move the speakers around inside the earflaps. The funny thing is, after snapping the earflaps back into the helmet chassis, you can't even tell that I cut them open. Nice.
So how do they work? Pairing the device with my iPhone 4 is just like any other Bluetooth device I've used. Turn it on, wait for it to be discovered, enter the code, done. I put the speakers to the test and fired up The Raconteurs, and was impressed with the audio quality of the speakers, way better than the tinny, thin sound of the Single-Shot Skullcandy wired solution. Stay tuned for a full-on review of the phone and intercom features, and the claimed weatherproofing of this device. I am heading out as I type to test this in blizzard pow skiing conditions! Guess it's time to fire up my powder playlist.