Gear Review – Headwave Helmet Speaker
More than a decade ago I equipped my first motorcycle helmet for sound. Bluetooth wasn’t really a thing yet and the few available units were big clunky touring things, well outside the budget of an acting school dropout. So I improvised.
Using not much more than misguided optimism and the basic bong making skills of an arts student, I cobbled together a functioning mess of butchered cheek pads, dismantled headphones and a 512MB iPod Shuffle hot-glued directly to the outside of the shell.
That effort got me through daily commutes for about a year with tinny, distorted renditions of whatever garbage 22-year-old-me thought was cool. Then one day a surprise downpour left me drenched, tuneless, and with a badly voided warranty that raised a few eyebrows at the genius bar. Interestingly, most of the Bluetooth units that have hit the market in the years since have followed the same basic principles as my misadventure – shoehorn tiny speakers into your ear real estate, connected by wires to a fiddly control box stuck to the outside of the shell. The fit and finish might be better, but it’s still never been an elegant solution.
Then along came the TAG Headwave. No speakers. No wires to run. Just stick the unit to the back of your helmet and pair it with your phone. It’s that easy.
Audio boffins will tell you about ‘surface transduction’ – the transmission of imperceptible vibrations directly into a surface to create sound. Basically, the whole helmet becomes a speaker wrapped around your head.
It’s important to note that with no microphone, and only one button for on / off / pair, the Headwave isn’t an intercom and won’t let you make calls. This is a pure audio-only device, which might be a selling point to some and a detraction for others.
Between the limited functionality, the unknown design, some rather naff marketing videos (see below) and a hefty 299EUR price tag, I’ll admit I met the offer to review this thing with skepticism. So how does it sound?
Well, pretty bloody good. The experience I had using the Headwave surpasses any other system I’ve used to listen to music on the go, although there are a few lingering caveats.
I tested the Headwave on two different helmets, a cheap spare helmet made of ABS, and a more expensive fiberglass lid. My thinking was that each helmet is going to have different acoustic characteristics, and that played out in my tests. The cheaper plastic helmet delivered deeper Bass although at the cost of clarity – the fiberglass giving crisper but less resonant hits. Mid range and highs were excellent across both.
Using both helmets the sound was surprisingly loud enough that I could clearly hear my music and GPS directions at 110km/hr and over the sound of my debaffled Triumph. Without speakers plugged directly into my ears, I could still also hear traffic and other environmental sounds clearly over the music making it a somewhat safer option to riding with headphones in. A drawback of the design, however, is that the sound goes out as well as in, so other riders could clearly hear what I was listening to when stopped beside me at lights. Choose your tunes wisely or be judged.
Audiophiles will have already worked out that turning the whole helmet into a single speaker means this is a strictly mono affair. Loss of stereo effect was noticeable around town but on the highway with wind and engine noise to compete with, it wasn’t really missed.
With no controls on the unit, volume control, pausing, skipping tracks etc is done directly from your device. This wasn’t an issue for me as I mount my phone to the handlebars using an excellent QuadLock case when I ride – but it might be an issue for those who prefer to keep their device pocketed.
The unit itself is quite a well-made piece of kit and while other reviewers had issues I experienced no trouble getting it to fit on either helmet. It also seems pretty sturdy, as their crush test demonstrates (below)
I have a minor quibble with the use of a proprietary charging connector and cable – it’s very well designed but I guarantee I will inevitably lose the cable and have to email Germany to order a replacement. I would’ve been much happier with a standard micro USB that can be purchased just about anywhere these days.
To summarise, overall I was impressed with the Headwave. Budget wise, 22 year old me might still be reaching for the hot glue gun, but it’s an ideal solution for those that want audio only and want the simplest approach to sound while staying aware of the world around you.
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