myReview: UCLEAR AMP Pro Helmet Audio System

About a year ago, I bought the UCLEAR AMP Pro Bluetooth Helmet Audio System to replace my SENA SMH5 because I wanted better quality sound when listening to music while I ride. Since the AMP Pro was billed as being able to deliver “Hi-Fi studio sound that delivers a warm, natural voice, powerful bass, and clean highs,” I decided to give it a shot.

TL;DR

This review is in-depth, if you just want the quick verdict…

For the price, I was expecting the UCLEAR AMP Pro to be a completely premium experience that surpassed my old SENA SMH5 unit (1/3rd the price) in every way, and while it is better in the really important areas (music and audio quality and clarity / your voice’s clarity on a call), the industrial design and certain parts of the user experience leave a lot to be desired and fall far below expectations.

Would buy
4/5


UCLEAR Amp Pro on Icon Dark Alliance helmet

Update (June 4, 2018): After just over a year of ownership, my AMP Pro totally stopped working today. I’ve reached out to UCLEAR’s support team and am awaiting a response. The AMP Pro should have a two year warranty that covers manufacturer’s defects, but I’ll update my review with relevant information from this experience when it’s resolved.


Update (June 10, 2018): Several hours after contacting UCLEAR, the device randomly started responding again and has worked normally since. The UCLEAR team hypothesized:

“Occasionally, the units can go into ‘update mode’, which essentially means the unit thinks it’s plugged into a computer to receive an update, so it will not respond to any button presses or charging. This is typically caused by pressing the power button while it is plugged in. I would recommend you run the firmware update again, as this issue is also typically caused by a software issue.”

Either way, it’s working, so I’m happy. Also, as a bonus UCLEAR was quick to point out that while their warranty period is 2 years, “you’ll always be taken care of,” which is a nice sentiment.

Short story long

At the time of my purchase, a single UCLEAR headset was $384.39 ($365.99 at time of publication) before taxes, which firmly places it in the top tier of helmet communicators / audio systems.

For your money, you’re getting the latest bluetooth standard (4.2), great cross-brand intercom compatibility, and a keen focus on sound quality.

Truly, the manufacturer’s emphasis of the quality of the “Pulse Pro Audio” in the product description is justified–when listening to music, it actually sounds like you’re getting a proper listening experience (with bass) rather than the tin-ey flat audio you typically get out of the competitors’ products, which are reminiscent of the first generation of portable mini USB speakers.

Not only is the sound you’re hearing clear, deep, and (if desired) loud, but the audio that the people you’re speaking to (say, on a bluetooth phone call) hear is clear and they can make out every word easily, even over loud bikes. This, coupled with the fact that the mics are embedded in the padding of your helmet rather than having to deal with a boom mic is a pretty huge deal (feels like you aren’t giving up any of your space inside the helmet). It’s also neat that you can answer calls by saying “hello,” although the timing takes a little practice.

A caveat would be that you can turn the audio up to a point that’s very loud and you can hear the speakers blowing out, but I guess it’s better to have the extreme options than not having them at all (say, in the case that you took a call with a low-speaker).

I’ve also used the intercom feature a few times, riding with someone who was also using a UCLEAR Amp Pro, and I was very happy with that experience. The range seemed pretty good and the quality met my expectations. One tip would be to enable “MUSIC OVERLAY” in the device’s configuration menu in the app. This’ll allow you to “hear music and intercom at the same time,” which will likely be necessary for you to continue to hear other prompts from your phone, like your directions from Waze.

But it does have its shortcomings. And more than I would have thought for a product that’s this expensive.

First off, the app experience is horrible. I was using an Android phone (Google Pixel 2 XL, so a modern device), so the UI might be more polished on iOS, but it’s like a home-grown app from a decade ago. Not only is the UI terrible, but the app doesn’t even work for its core functions–I tried and repeatedly failed to update the device’s firmware (had to use a computer in the end) and when I clicked the button to open the manual to review the control diagram, it didn’t do anything (note: the manual has been fixed).

CLEARLink app v. 2.6.4 for Android
CLEARLink app for Android v. 2.6.4

Secondly, the headset connects to the speakers and mic through the same port that you use to charge the device (compared to the dedicated charging port on the SENA SMH5); it requires you to really force the cable in for the speakers to work; and it uses Mini USB instead of Micro USB, a format that hasn’t been current for, again, a decade. Additionally, the port on the headset is recessed and narrow, so if you bring your helmet with you somewhere, but didn’t bring the included charger, chances are that if you are able to find a Mini USB cable lying around, you won’t be able to charge the headset with it because it won’t fit into the narrow channel (a major industrial design flaw).

UCLEAR Amp Pro charging / speaker port

Thirdly, the actual way the buttons work on the device is pretty bad compared with the inexpensive SENA I had before. With gloves on, there’s no clear way to tell that you’ve successfully found the button you’re after as the buttons actually require a pretty deep push in order to activate them (no true tactile way to position yourself beyond ‘knowing’ the positioning relative to the shape). Many of the more advanced commands (like enabling pairing for intercom mode) requite you to push two buttons at the same time as well, which is challenging, and you’ll often end up removing your helmet to do them. Seems kind of ridiculous when compared to the simplicity of the jog wheel on the SENA. Because of this, I bought the Uclear HBC Universal Remote, a handlebar remote control, which works well… but with the extra $70 ($53.99 at time of publication) spent, I almost feel like begrudgingly applauding UCLEAR for their design having forced that extra little bit of cash out of me.

Finally, I also feel like the steps in the volume are too significant and I’d like it to be less incremental to be able to find that perfect balance between music and the road so you felt like you’d be able to continue to safely monitor your surroundings, although that could be more of a personal preference (you can adjust it in smaller increments on your actual phone, but you typically want to be able to set the volume while you’re actually riding so you’re balancing it against riding noise). The app allows you to enable an “AUTO VOLUME” mode, which automatically “adjusts speaker loudness based on environment noise level.” I think this works well in that once I establish my preferred audio level, I typically don’t need to adjust it again on a ride. That said, I wish it worked for calls too – I’ve been listening to music at a perfect level and then gotten a call where I couldn’t hear the person at all and that’s not an ideal distraction to have to deal with. Speaking of, when your music doesn’t resume after a call automatically (or your device says it’s playing still and you have to restart the headset to get it to work again), it can be a little frustrating.

The verdict

So, long story short, if you’re buying this mainly because you want to be able to listen to music without significantly compromising audio quality and you want the ability to take and make crystal clear calls, this is a great headset. Or if you ride with a big group of people who have a diversity of headset brands, this device’s cross brand compatibility (“Intercom connects to most Bluetooth Motorcycle helmet communication systems”) could be a major plus. But it does come with a lot of compromises in terms of ease of use, product design, and the general user experience, so you have to weigh those against one another, especially at the steep cost.

For me, I’d probably buy it again because the sound quality is just so good and I do like to listen to music while I ride. But I’d be very hesitant to recommend it without giving the complete context and, for someone who wasn’t listening to a lot of music and didn’t mind a boom mic, the SENA SMH5 definitely delivers more bang for your buck while saving you a bunch of money.

Would buy
4/5

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