I had often heard wireless headsets referred to as “marriage savers,” but before I started cruising full-time, I didn’t realize the accuracy of the nickname. Now, after several years of regular use, I wouldn’t want to cruise without them.
Headsets became an important piece of gear aboard our Carver 570 Have Another Day when we started to cruise for extended periods to new places. After we left our homeport in Chicago—where docking was fairly easy—nearly every slip was unfamiliar. As a result, chaos sometimes ensued.
Our boat has a stern docking camera with a microphone, which allows me to hear my wife, Laura, when she’s standing in the cockpit and handling lines. We thought it was a good setup until we had one too many conversations that ended with one of us shouting to be heard, and the other one annoyed for being yelled at. Thus, the search for wireless headsets, a few of which Laura and I tested.
The Eartec UltraLite headset uses Dect 6.0, a standard developed for cordless phones in the 1,900-megahertz frequency range. There’s one master headset and as many as four remote headsets, and the master must be powered up for the other headsets to work. This is a full-duplex system, which means it allows the user to talk and listen to another person at the same time. The UltraLite can be paired with the ULP1000 belt pack, which supports a number of corded headsets and has an advertised range of about 1,300 feet in open areas. The headset and belt pack use a common lithium-ion rechargeable battery back. Pricing ranges from $385 for a two-person system to $1,020 for a five-person system. All configurations include batteries, a charger and a carrying bag.
Competing wireless headsets are made by Sena, which uses Bluetooth and can connect to mobile devices in addition to multiple headsets. That means they’re good for phone conversations and listening to music, in addition to onboard communications. Sena headsets can support as many as four parties in an intercom session. We tested the Expand model ($150) with a short fixed microphone, and the SPH10-10 ($180), with a flexible boom microphone, a jog wheel to control it and a wired auxiliary input. Sena headsets have an advertised range of about 2,600 feet in open areas.
Based on our tests, you can’t go wrong with either brand, but there are differences between the two. Overall, I’ve found the audio quality to be better on the Eartec headsets. The Sena sets are perfectly acceptable (similar to telephone quality), but on the Eartec models, sound quality for phone calls is excellent, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to music on them.
Eartec’s self-contained units are over-the-head style and come in a single headband size. I have an abnormally large head and had no trouble with this brand, but Laura found that the headset would slip off if she leaned too far forward. The Sena models are both behind-the-neck style, which seems to better fit heads smaller than mine.
The Eartec units are a little simpler to get connected for conversations between more than two headsets. UltraLite headsets need to be paired to a master unit, and then all the headsets can be used together. The Sena headsets will automatically establish a two-party conference when they power up, but each additional headset has to call one of the active headsets to join the conversation. This requires a simple button press, but it’s another step that must be completed before everyone is talking together.
The Sena units are available only in dual-ear designs with both ears covered. In docking situations, I would prefer to have one ear uncovered, to be able to hear what’s happening around the boat as well as what my crew without headsets are saying. Eartec has models with single and dual earcups.
I found the battery life on both brands to be plenty long. Typically, a charge will last through 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. 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 swap in a fresh battery to replace a dead one.
Although the Sena headsets have a longer stated range, the Eartecs worked over greater distances. The Eartecs went farther before audio began to break up. Both headsets provided real-world range of several hundred feet with good quality, and we found that communicating across multiple decks was never 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 VHF radios, but with headsets, we were able to converse comfortably without breaking concentration or taking hands off the vessel controls for the radio. We also frequently use the headsets in locks and while performing maintenance tasks in the engine room that require someone to be at the helm.
We have been thrilled with the difference that full-duplex headsets make while we are docking. We are able to carry on full conversations in a normal speaking voice and calm tone, all of which means our marriage should remain secure for at least a little while longer.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.