talk 'n ride

starcom1 Bike communications system
from Tecstar

Article and pics by Dick Henneman

Back in the good old days of motorcycling, if the person on the back wanted to communicate with the person at the front, the options were limited. Some tried hand signals, others used a code based upon taps on the back of the helmet or the jacket, and some resorted to plain old shouting. And if you wanted to talk to your mate on another bike, then it was a matter of pulling over to the side of the road for a chat. But this is the age of electronics and digital information exchange, and there are now much more effective methods of keeping in touch on the move. There are pillion to rider intercoms, bike to bike radios, hands-free headsets for mobile phones, and personal stereo audio systems to play your favourite tracks on monotonous motorways.

The Tecstar Starcom1 system is all these and more.

At the heart of the system is the communications module, a sturdy well-made aluminium box about the size of a couple of cigarette packets lying side-by-side. Everything plugs into this unit, and although it will normally be mounted somewhere on the bike and powered by the bike's 12V electrics, you can also fit a 9V PP3 battery inside the case and use it as a portable unit. This will give you around 5 hours use before the battery needs replacing. As this was going to be a lengthy test and I don't have shares in Duracell or Energizer, the first step was to install it on the bike and connect up the power. Now I have to admit that I had a slight advantage here, as my bike's already had an intercom unit installed on it in the past, so it was a relatively simple matter to hook it up to the existing fused tap from the 12V feed to the rear brake light switch, and find some space under the pillion seat for the module. Intercoms usually have to be connected to a 12V supply that's controlled by the ignition switch so that the unit doesn't drain the battery when the bike's not being used. However the Starcom1 has a nice feature that only switches the unit on when the rider's headset it plugged in, and that means you can take power directly off the battery terminals if needs be, which makes installation a lot easier. Tecstar supply a good selection of connectors and mounting hardware to make the installation process as painless as possible, but you should still allow 1-2 hours for the work, and it goes without saying that you should read the comprehensive manual that's supplied and make sure you know what all the bits are and how they connect together before you start. Of course you will!

The Starcom1 can be supplied in various levels of "build" depending on what you want to use the system for, and then added to when you need extra features. If you do a lot of two-up riding then you would start with the module and a couple of headsets. Then, for music on the move you could add an audio lead to connect to an MP3 player or CD unit. To make and receive mobile phone calls there's a cable and adapter to connect your phone to the system, and if you ride in a group then you can also connect a radio transceiver for those bike-to-bike chats. There's even the facility to connect a PTT switch if you don't want to use the standard Vox mode of operation.

Tecstar supplied me with all of these bits for the test, so I spent a fair amount of time in the workshop wiring all the bits and pieces in place. It's a good idea - no, it's essential - to plan the installation before you start, to make sure everything will go where it has to go, and to ensure that you can run the cables to the appropriate places so that you can plug in all the accessories that you're going to use. It's not a trivial exercise, and although you could always pay someone to install the kit for you, there's always a good chance that they won't put all the bits in the places that you thought they would go, and you'll end up with something that just doesn't feel 100% right when you use it. The whole thing isn't rocket science, it's just a matter of plugging leads into various sockets and routing cables, and if you're up to putting a mains plug on a cable then you shouldn't have any real problems. Of course, if you can't fit a mains plug . . ? - then find a mate who can and get him/her to give you a hand. The key is not to rush the job, take your time, read the instructions, think things through and you should be okay. On faired bikes there's a reasonable chance you might need to remove at least one body panel or component to make a tidy job, and when choosing a place for the module make sure there's enough room for the cables to plug into their sockets on the end panels and to get to the two control knobs when you set the system up.

Once you've got the module installed on the bike, it's time to turn your attention to the headset installation. For the best sound quality it's important that the speakers are positioned directly over the centre of the ears and as close to them as possible, and the centre of the microphone should just be touching the lips. Both are supplied with self-adhesive Velcro pads to make it as easy as possible to get things in the right place, or if you've got a helmet with a removable liner and cheek pads, like my AGV, you can fit the speakers behind the liner to make it a neater job. It's worthwhile taking some time to find the optimum position for the speakers, and a sound source connected to the module on the bike can be a great help here. Then, with everything in the right place it's simply a matter of tucking the thin connecting cables out of the way behind the helmet liner, securing everything in place with the supplied adhesive strips, and positioning the connecting socket for the headset cable where it's easy to get at.

As my "better half" and I were just about to set off on our bikes for a two-week tour of northern France when the Starcom1 arrived on my desk, it was the ideal opportunity to try out the bike-to-bike communications. Tecstar supplied two Kenwood Funkey PMR446 radios and a connecting cable, so it was simply a matter of making up a cable to connect one of the radios to the intercom on the other bike and we were in business. Now I have to admit here that I was in a bit of a rush to get everything sorted before the ferry sailed for Calais, and this led to problems in setting up the Vox operation of the unit. As time was running out, I quickly installed the PTT switch to get things going.

So after all that hard work . . . did it work?

Yes it did - and to plagiarise a well known TV advert "It did exactly what it said on the box".

I used a Mini Disc unit as an audio source with the unit and the sound was almost up to HiFi CD quality. Given the small size of the speakers, this was an excellent achievement. Speech was always clear and crisp no matter how illegal the speed, and the Kenwood transceivers had a very useful range that was tested to the full when we got separated in traffic and I had to give directions over a distance of around 2km through Chinon.

The comprehensive installation pack also includes a self-adhesive "gizmo" that allows you to 'park' the headset cable on the bike in a convenient place that allows you to get at the cable when you need it, and prevent it from flapping around in the breeze or wrapping itself around the chain when you don't.

The Starcom1 has two very useful features that make it easy to hear speech and music under different conditions. The first is a volume control on the unit that allows you to adjust the sound level to suit your personal preference and will also compensate for the attenuation you get when you use earplugs. Secondly the unit detects changes in background noise when you're on the move and automatically adjusts the gain to maintain a constant sound volume. This means that you can set everything up in the relative peace and quiet of your garage, and know that you'll still be able to hear everything clearly when you're doing a ton down the Autoroute. There's an even cleverer bit which allows you to set different volume levels for the rider and the pillion, which is useful say, if one uses earplugs and the other doesn't. You do have to remove one of the end covers from the Starcom1 module and move a jumper to set this feature which might be a bit of a pain, but it's nice to know it's there if you need it. I tried it out with my daughter riding pillion without earplugs, and it really does make a difference.

Just to round off the test I connected my battered old Nokia 3310 to the unit and there was no problem making and receiving calls, although I might question the sanity of wanting to do either, unless of course you're a high-speed executive on the move! Tecstar can supply cables and adaptors for most current makes of mobile phone, and as long as it has an auto-answer feature you shouldn't have any problems. Just remember though, that the mobile shares the same input channel as the radio transceiver, so if you've got one of these connected as well then everyone tuned to the same channel will hear your side of the phone conversation!

All the connectors used on the Starcom1 module for the headsets, PTT switch and transceiver cables are the "mini-DIN" type that are commonly used for connecting keyboards and mice to PCs. They are all polarised differently so there's no chance of you plugging the wrong cable in the wrong socket, and the cables are all of professional quality with moulded connectors and look as though they'll take a lot of punishment without any problems. However, during the course of this test I did however have a minor glitch with the rider headset socket on the Starcom1 module, which caused the cable to partially disconnect itself every 800 miles or so. This meant that although my wife could hear what I was saying, I couldn't hear her, and although some may think that this is no bad thing, take my word that it's not good for a long term relationship! This turned out to be an alignment problem that prevented the plug seating properly, and was quickly fixed by Tecstar. I also finally managed to get the Vox feature working properly after taking the time to read the instructions in the comprehensive manual and follow what they said, rather than doing what I thought!

All in all, the Starcom1 is a very, very good bike communication system with an excellent range of features that will allow just about anything to be connected to it. You can even plug in a GPS and be "talked in" to your destination. It comes with comprehensive instructions and a fitting kit that should allow it to installed on just about any bike. However it's quite a large unit, and with cables plugging in to both ends you will need a good amount of space for the installation. With modern bikes getting more and more complex, and their electronics packages and ancillaries taking up ever more of the underseat and under fairing space, this is an area of concern.

I can't help wondering if the module could be made smaller by taking a lot of the connectors out of the unit and installing them as line sockets on flying leads. It's a thought. Apart from that, the only other niggle I had with the system was the way in which it muted the audio during speech. It cuts the music 100% when anyone is speaking and then switches it back on with a bang some 5 - 7 seconds after the speech has stopped. I have to admit that it made me jump the first few times I experienced this, and my first thoughts were that the Mini Disc unit had got disconnected. It also appears to completely mute your speakers when you're talking, so the only way you can hear what you're saying is by the soundwaves travelling through your skull. Personally, I'd prefer to have the music muted to around 90-95%, the speech from my microphone put on as a sidetone when I'm talking, and the mute delay being shortened to around 2-3 seconds with the audio then ramped up to normal levels over a 1 second period.

Now perhaps I'm being hyper-critical here, but these comments in no way detract from the quality and usefulness of the Starcom1 package. This is a very well-made, competitively-priced and function-rich bike communication system, and if you're in the market for an intercom system then it's certainly worth looking at and it could be the one for you. If you want more details, or need to check the detailed prices of all the system components, or maybe even order a system, then take a look at the Tecstar website at www.starcom1.com.




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