Apparently, the folks at Cruising Solutions have not forgotten how I once wrote that their useful and still popular Mariner 500 intercom headsets make “a boater look unfashionably similar to a Soviet tank driver,” and hence asked me to test their latest product. They are called “My Team Talks” Bluetooth headsets, and they’re much more than modern-looking intercoms. The tag line “Bring state-of-the-art multiplex communication technology to your boat” is not an overstatement.
The technology that Cruising Solutions (cruisingsolutions.com) has selected for marine use (and will presumably support for a long time) was developed by headset specialists Sena, whose main market is motorcyclists. Its capabilities are phenomenal. You could conceivably have a phone and another audio source (maybe even a VHF) wirelessly connected to a headset and still be able to intercom with up to three other units. I tried a lot of the features and found the performance excellent. The My Team Talks headsets also seemed easier to set up and use than the huge feature list might suggest.
Little rubber tabs that fit between your earlobe and head help keep the device in place. I found them fairly comfortable and could wear a pair for hours before needing a break. My dear mate, on the other hand, did not get used to them easily, but she does have an unusually small noggin (especially given its enormous and fantastic contents). No headphones are compatible with my hearing aids, but I found music, podcasts, intercom and most phone calls were quite audible. All sources come through both speakers, and music apps played in stereo. Each source volume can be individually controlled with the Jog Dial, which can also be used to skip forward and back through music tracks.
A really nice feature is the audible prompting, wherein a pleasant voice confirms that the headset is turned on and connected with your phone. It can also inform users of things like low-battery status or lead you through complex settings when needed.
For example, it was easy to turn off the intercom voice activation that confused me when I first tried a single headset with phone and audio in my shop. Initially, I had problems with that feature in the form of a sharp sound like packing tape ripping off a roll when I put the headset in intercom mode. However, the attendant audible warning quickly clarified the issue by telling me that an intercom mate wasn’t available, something which helped me troubleshoot the situation as well.
In the end, it turned out that using the intercom manually is plenty easy: one tap on the dial starts full duplex communication with the other set(s) until you or another user taps the dial again. (Intercom VOX Off is the default mode, changed I guess by a prior tester in the case of my set.) We didn’t test the intercom in extreme conditions, but the noise cancelling did seem to work well around normal wind and engine sounds. I will note that the Sena manual is a bit daunting, but Cruising Solutions is working on both a video tutorial and a few quick start pages focused on the functions boaters typically use.
I’ve tried a lot of wireless headsets, including several with intercom abilities, and I agree with Cruising Solutions that this product hits a sweet spot of features, performance, ease of use and value. It may be partly that Bluetooth has gotten more reliable and capable over time, but I also think that Sena is very good at what they do.
My boat doesn’t demand headsets for calm docking or anchoring, but I can imagine many circumstances—like troubleshooting something in the engine room—when they might be very useful, and I’ll also miss using them as a solid standalone phone and audio headset.
That having been said, for ultra-simple and inexpensive intercom-only use, the Mariner 500 is also still a valid choice, and who knows, maybe the look has become hip.
For more on Ben's insights into electronics, go to www.panbo.com.