The BK-1 is a full-duplex intercom system, which means the devices can communicate with one another in both directions simultaneously, like a phone in contrast to a walkie-talkie, meaning you can listen, yak and interrupt one another at the same time. The BK-1 also facilitates hands-free Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, MP3 players, or GPS device connections. Each unit has a channel A and B, so the intercom can connect on either channel after being paired with one another. For a three-way setup, one cyclist has to be the conference leader, and pair themselves on channel A to one user, and on channel B to the other. Unfortunately, when doing the three-way conference, you can’t receive phone calls through the BK-1.
So what makes using an intercom system special while biking? Although you can converse with one another when riding side by side, it’s not always the safest or the most practical method, whether that’s on the road or a trail. Using a system like the BK-1 allows you to converse with one another at normal volumes, and ride in single file, whether you are close or separated by some distance.
I found the BK-1 quite useful for having simple conversations or to check on something with your compatriot while riding on singletrack, especially when it was windy or the trail caused background noise (rough). I never had to raise my voice or yell to be heard, like it can sometimes happen on a ride, which was nice when you are winded or panting, i.e., sucking wind. The sound on the intercom was clear, loud, and distinct, and I could easily understand words and conversations. I really enjoyed having the unit when I was riding with my kids, as it allowed easy communication with them during a ride, for more enjoyment and comfort. I would think it would be quite useful for training, either as a coach or training partner? It made BS sessions with a riding buddy very entertaining, and rides took on an entirely different aspect, adding to the quality and enlivenment of the experience.
The installation was pretty straight forward, and it was simple to pop the headset out of the cradle (and back in), for charging or storage. I found that taking the speaker or audio units off was problematic because the sticky Velcro pads would almost usually come off with them, so you would regularly need to apply new pads to the helmet, and although the kits contain quite a few of them, I would have liked a few more. It’s not an issue with their system; it’s just that EPS foam and stick-on pads always detach with time, and their adhering qualities with each other are poor.
The weight for the system, including the headset, mount and speakers come in at a respectable 117 grams. Although that isn’t light, the weight distribution of the speakers on the side and headset in the middle, kept the weight low and snug and centered to your head, making it feel that it really isn’t there. Fitting the speaker by your ear was simple, and it gave you lots of fine tuning, and you could push them farther away from your ear or closer for better listening, and up out of the way when you needed to concentrate or weren’t using them for anything.
The BK-1 DUO which I tested already had the two units paired with each other on Channel A, but even if they weren’t paired, it’s a fairly simple process to connect them to each other. You hold either the Channel A or B button down on the first BK-1 for four seconds (blue or red LED flashes rapidly), and immediately do the same on the second unit, and then a solid light shows that they are paired. To start the intercom process between them, turn both unit’s on, and either talk loudly into the microphone or tap the paired Channel (A or B), and communication will commence. If line goes dormant or the intercom has been silent for over 30 seconds, another loud hello or tap of the appropriate button gets things going. On rare occasions, it seemed to get confused, and it would take a few tires to reengage the communication system. If one person was on a phone call and the other initiates a connection, both of you get a busy signal, and things will start back up when their call is completed. There is a hierarchy of priorities for the audio sources, and the mobile phone audio is the highest, then the intercom and so forth, so an intercom can’t interrupt a call.
Although the lights on the buttons helped with doing the settings, they were difficult to see in bright light conditions, and since the headset was on top of your head, you either had to remove the helmet for viewing or have your partner confirm the patterns. The buttons were distinct, yet had a nice soft feel, and were easy to use even with gloves on, though I must admit I sometimes forgot, which was the A or B channel button?
I tested the communication range all over the place (up hill and down dale), and if you had a total clear line of sight you might get close to 300-400 yards, but if obstacles, especially heavy trees were between riders, then the distance dropped to 100 yards, and sometimes it was poorer. Although foliage and trail obstacles dropped the distance down substantially, you could still hear one another, albeit it had a static background noise, like you get between radio stations, though at a lower frequency. All it meant was that you had to keep some closeness between one another and line of sight if possible (keep one another in view), which wasn’t difficult on most terrain, unless you were hauling downhill, and during that situation, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Heavy forested areas seemed to cause more issues then other terrain features.
To be honest, my favorite usage of the BK-1 was for personal hands-free use of Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, which in my case was my iPhone. I loved being able to stream music from my smartphone to the BK-1, and then pick up and answer calls without having to take the phone out of my pack. Another significant advantage to the system is that the speakers sit outside and away from my ears, and although I could hear the music just fine, I could still hear and interact with things going on around me, allowing me to pick up ambient sounds and spatial cues. If I needed additional hearing acuity, I could easily pop the speakers up out of the way from my ears, like wings, giving me total attention to things. That was a great advantage over ear buds, which significantly isolate you from your surroundings, though I’ll give them a slight upper hand in the acoustic department. Sound reproduction was fine with the BK-1 speakers, not audiophile standards by any means, but adequate for its background purpose, and I found it perfectly enjoyable for my music listening pleasure. I could also hear phone calls just fine, and my party inferred it worked well on their end. The unit has AGC or Automatic Gain Control enabled (by default), which adjusts the volume to the ambient noise and riding speed, but I sometimes found it would freak out, and would occasionally change volume in mid song?
Like any Bluetooth setup between devices, it takes an initial pairing between BK-1 and the mobile device (smartphone). Hold the headset’s mobile button down for six seconds until it flashes red, and continue holding the button until the red and blue rapidly alternate, and search for the cardo on the smartphones Bluetooth queue. When the pairing is done, just turning the headset on and pushing the middle mobile phone button get things rolling after a short period of time once you start your music. To answer an incoming call (you’ll hear your specific ring tone from the speaker), you tap the mobile phone button or talk loud for the VOX, and the call will come through. To end the call, hit the button again or let the call die, and music will start streaming if it was playing beforehand. I never attempted to answer a call while riding, and I always stopped, but it was much handier than reaching somewhere to grab the phone, which previously meant I usually missed the call. You might be able to get the VOX to interface with your smartphone, but I found it a mixed bag, and didn’t use it in that manner. In addition to using a smartphone, you can pair up a Bluetooth enabled GPS or MP3 player, or hard wire a non-Bluetooth MP3 player using their included cable, though I never tested any of those options.
The BK-1 is supposed to give you around seven hours of usage, but I never rode that long at once, but in my rough testing, I got maybe five hours of music listening, done over two different days, before it started to beep at me and finally die. You can recharge the unit from your computers USB port or use the accompanying wall socket (my preference), by connecting the included cable to the rear of the headsets USB port.
The BK-1 is pretty rugged, and it survived many rain storms and rough usage. I crammed the speakers into the helmet and jammed the helmet into my gym bag, and yanked the boom this way and that constantly, and they haven’t shown any signs of wear or ill use. After a period of time, the stick-on Velcro pads on the helmet start to get loose and sloppy, but the speakers never popped off on me.
Note: I didn’t test their “Click-to-Link” feature, which allows spontaneous intercom conversations with any Cardo BK-1 user nearby.