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Loud and Clear

Clear communications on board via full-duplex wireless headsets have proven to be an extremely useful tool for this full-time cruising family.

My family’s boat, Have Another Day, has a stern docking camera with a good view of the swim platform and a built-in microphone. During docking it allows me to hear my wife, Laura, when she’s standing in our cockpit with a dockhand near the stern. Our dialogues used to go something like this:

Dockhand to Laura: Do you want this line cleated off?
Laura (looking at camera): Do you want the line cleated?
Me (in normal voice): Yes.
Laura: Ben, do you want this line cleated off?
Me (in a louder—but still not shouting—voice): Yes.
Laura (in a more insistent tone): BEN, do you want this line cleated off?”
Me (shouting): YES!
Laura (in an annoyed tone): Okay, but you don’t have to yell.

After a few of those exchanges, the need for better communications was clear. I’ve often heard wireless headsets referred to as “marriage savers” for live-aboard families, but before cruising full-time I didn’t realize the accuracy of the moniker. Early on, it was fairly easy to tie up at our home slip in Chicago with lines preset and a well-understood plan; unfamiliar docks were definitely the exception. But when we began cruising, every docking scenario brought a new slip and a new set of challenges. Chaos sometimes ensued.

Now, after several years of regularly using wireless headsets, I wouldn’t want to cruise without them. There are multiple brands and types of headsets on the market, and the two we’ve used extensively each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Single-ear headsets give the user an uncovered ear to hear what’s happening around the boat.

Single-ear headsets give the user an uncovered ear to hear what’s happening around the boat.

Eartec UltraLITE

The Eartec UltraLITE headsets use DECT 6.0—the standard developed for cordless phones that finally made them work reliably, if you can remember back that far—in the 1900mhz frequency range. Up to five headsets can be connected for full-duplex communications. (Full-duplex is the ability to both talk and hear the other person at the same time, unlike some alternatives, like VHF handhelds.) It’s also available in single- and dual-earcup models.

Each UltraLITE system consists of one master headset and up to four remote headsets: the one caveat being the master must be on for any of the other headsets to converse. Eartec offers their headsets in bundles with varying configurations from $385 for a two-person, single earcup system to $1,020 for a five person, dual earcup system. All configurations include batteries, a charger and a carrying bag. In addition, if more than five headsets are needed an Eartec Hub grants connectivity for up to nine headsets.

The self-contained headsets can also be paired with the ULP1000 beltpack, which supports a number of corded headsets. This package has an advertised range of 1,300 feet in open areas. The headsets and beltpacks all use a common lithium-ion rechargeable battery back. Chargers are available for two ($50) or eight ($80) batteries at a time. Eartec says each battery lasts six hours on a charge.

Eartec units are worn over the head, while Sena’s are around the ear.

Eartec units are worn over the head, while Sena’s are around the ear.

Sena Headsets

Sena’s line of headsets use Bluetooth to connect to each other and also to mobile devices. So, in addition to being used as an intercom, the Sena headsets can be used for phone conversations and as wireless headphones. Sena’s headsets can support up to four parties in an intercom session.

Sena has four different models. The Tufftalk is the more durable, water-resistant line with a price point starting at $250 for the entry model and up to $400 for their most rugged, heavily built model. The Tufftalk has sound-deadening capabilities for high-noise environments and also comes with built-in FM radios. Sena says their headsets have a range over 2,600 feet in open areas.

Which is Better?

The two products have quite a few differences, and you may find one brand fits your needs better than the other. Overall, I’ve found the audio quality to be higher on Eartec’s headsets. The Sena’s audio quality is perfectly acceptable (I would equate it to telephone call quality), but Eartec’s quality is better overall. But then again, Sena’s ability to make or take phone calls—with the marina office, for example—or listen to some soothing music in the background—may be more valuable to you.

All of Eartec’s self-contained units (those without a separate beltpack and headset) are over-the-head style and come in a single headband size. I have an abnormally large head and hence have had no trouble with the UltraLITE staying on, but my wife has found that if she leans forward too far the headset slips off. The Senas are behind-the-neck style, which seems to better fit smaller heads.

The Eartec units are simpler to connect for conversations between more than two headsets. UltraLITE headsets need to be paired to a master unit, and then can all be used together as soon as they’re powered up. The Sena headsets will automatically establish a two-party conference on power up, but each additional headset has to call one of the active pair to join the conversation. This isn’t hard to do—it’s initiated with a simple button—but it’s another step that must be completed before everyone is able to communicate.

The Sena units are only available in dual-ear designs with both ears covered. In docking situations, I would prefer to have one ear uncovered to hear what’s happening around the boat as well as what my crew is saying. Eartec has models with both single and dual earcups.

I found the battery life on both products to be plenty long. Typically a charge will last many docking operations as long as everyone remembers to turn off their headsets afterward. Sena uses built-in lithium-ion batteries that charge with a standard micro USB cord, while Eartec uses removable lithium-ion battery packs and separate chargers. Each approach has its advantages: USB charging means you can use cables which are likely around, but if the battery is dead the headset is out of business while it charges. Eartec’s removable batteries require a proprietary charger, but you can just swap in a fresh battery to replace a dead one.

Although the Sena headsets have a longer stated range, throughout our testing we found the Eartecs to work over greater -distances. The Eartecs went farther before audio began to break up and worked a greater distance before the audio became so garbled it couldn’t be understood. Both headsets provide real-world range of several hundred feet with good quality, and working across multiple decks—including the engine room—has never been a problem.

Last summer, while navigating a challenging area, Laura used our dinghy to lead Have Another Day through the shallows. We’ve done this before with two-way radios but with headsets we were able to comfortably converse without breaking concentration or taking hands off the vessel controls, as we would have done with the radio. We also frequently use the headsets when navigating locks, or when performing maintenance tasks in the engine room that requires another person at the helm.

We have been thrilled with the difference full-duplex headsets make while docking. Instead of yelling, we are able to carry on our conversations in normal speaking voices and calm demeanors. Docking, as we all know, can be stressful—and nothing gets my stress up faster than having someone who can see part of the boat I can’t yelling something I can’t clearly make out. I’m left to wonder: Should I stop? Should I throw the boat in reverse? Should I keep going?

With headsets, the difference between “Someone fell in—stop!” and “Oh look, a dolphin” is crystal clear.

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.