Review: Nolan N103 Motorcycle Helmet With N-COM
Posted at 07:07:00 PM
File under Bluetooth Gadgets Helmets Product Review
Author: Mike Werner
Location: Normandy, France
You don't become a major player in the motorcycle helmet market for nothing. Supplying helmets to the likes of Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Enduro E2 world champion Mike Ahola takes craftsmanship. And from this review, you'll see than Nolan has got it. It's obvious what we think of the Nolan N103 in the introduction. Here's why:
We've been testing lots of wireless communicators for motorcycle helmets on the market. We've been at it since the very beginning, and have started getting a good feel what a good Bluetooth communicator should, and also should not, do. So now we've decided to start reviewing the manufacturer's helmets with integrated Bluetooth devices.
There are pro and anti arguments for using a helmet manufacturer's wireless communicator. The downside is obvious; you're stuck with one manufacturer. Bluetooth communicators from different suppliers are not compatible. If there are two of you, you'll both need the same equipment. If you have different helmets (like one of the road and one for off road, or long distance and another for city riding), you need to buy not only different helmets, but the communicator that goes with it.
On the upside, there's no guess work if things will fit. The units are made for that specific helmet, so the usage is 100% for that helmet. Most 3rd party Bluetooth units need to be adapted to whatever helmet you are using so thing may not fit. Getting a helmet from a manufacturer with fitted Bluetooth equipment means the helmet is more or less ready to go. No surprises and things should work much better. Another thing to remember, in the case of the likes on Nolan, their helmets are homologated WITH the Bluetooth communicator.
So we decided to test the new Nolan N103 Flip-up helmet with integrated N-COM Bluetooth device. Our units were not installed (some dealers will do that for you), and you'll need to install the units. Here's how things went.
NOTE: When you see a small magnifying glass at the bottom of a photo, you can click on the photo for a bigger version to popup, allowing you to see the details.
The modules consisted of the following when they arrived:
#1 - The Nolan N103 flip-up modular helmet
#2 - Dust cover
#3 - BasicKit2 :
The BasicKit2 is the module you will need whatever communication module you install.
#4 - BluetoothKit2 :
BluetoothKit2 contains all the electronics to enable wireless communications.
On the side of the Nolan N103 helmet you see a small cover:
Notice the slide above the N-COM cover. That's the sun visor slide.
You need to remove the N-COM cover:
When you remove the cover, you see the area where your electronics will be installed.
The two boxes, when opened, contain the following:
#1 - The box everything is in
#2 - Boom microphone with lead
#3 - Battery holder
#4 - Electronics and loudspeakers
#5 - Velcro pad, microphone clip, screw, washer and Allen key
#6 - Waterproof seal, extra microphone mousse
#7 - Manual/Instructions
#1 - The box
#2 - Manual/Instructions
#3 - Battery charger
#4 - Clip
#5 - Multimedia audio lead
#6 - Battery (rechargeable)
#7 - Control unit
#8 - Don't know, wasn't used...
Installing the N-COM in the Nolan N103
First, let me say, if you can buy the helmet with the electronics fitted, DO SO! Fitting the electronics involves the equivalent of open heart surgery. You'll need to remove everything from within the helmet, not only the lining, but padding, polystyrene, etc. You'll end up with a totally naked helmet. If you're anything like me, with two left hands, I strongly suggest you get it fitted, or have a friend who is good with these kind of things, do it.
The instructions are not clear, the small photos inadequate, and there are no big photos available on the internet. It is the main negative side of the Nolan setup. The first helmet took me 1 and half hour to do. The 2nd went a lot faster, about 30 minutes, but not without a lot of sweat. So if you're someone who curses, sweats, and has heart attacks when putting together IKEA furniture, buy it fitted!!!!
I'll try to walk you through the installation, hopefully helping those of you who get stuck.
First, you need to install the battery (Figure #7-6) in the battery holder (Figure #6 - 3). Make sure you line up the little lip of the battery to the similar size opening on the battery holder. The battery label goes downwards.
Make sure you place the lead through the special gutter (above photo, top arrow).
Getting the microphone ready is simple enough. Place the plastic clip (Figure #6-5) over the end of the microphone boom (over the plastic tag). Connect the microphone lead to the main electronics (Figure #6-4). Simple...
NOTE: The flat part of the plastic clip is the side that gets put onto the helmet first, the angled part of the clip is the bit that receives the screw.
Next you need to place the water/rain proof seal over the electronics. Open the N-COM plate on the helmet (Figure #5). Remove the adhesive cover from the seal (Figure #6-6), punch out the middle (it's perforated, so it's easy to tear off), and place the seal over the electronics opening.
So far it has been easy. The patient is prepped, and we need to open the chest to get at the heart. Remove the cheek padding from the helmet:
The cheek pads are held into the Nolan helmet by three push buttons. Pull the edge the furthest away from the helmet, gently, towards the inside of the helmet. You'll feel the push button click when it is removed. Then move the inner sides buttons gently. You can pull the whole cheek pad over the chin strap.
Once you've remove the cheek pad, this is what it look like:
The extra piece of cloth you see above in the photo is Velcro'd onto the cheek pad, and is easy removed. You'll see in the center of the cheek pad a perforated circle (see arrow).
Remove the perforated circle (a sharp knife or small scissor helps).
You now have prepared the cheek pad to let the sound out for the loudspeakers....
Now for the main surgery. You need to remove the lining. In the back of the helmet, the lining is held by three plastic tabs (see arrows below):
Very gently, pull the middle part of the rear lining up and towards the inside of the helmet.
You will feel the plastic clip give. Continue pulling the lining gently until the three clips are off, and the metal round edge of the lining at the front of the helmet is off. Now we need to remove the polystyrene padding from the cheeks. The cheek polystyrene padding is held by an insert in the main padding (the arrow below points at where the padding used to be).
You have to be REALLY careful when removing the polystyrene, since it's very fragile. No force is needed, just gently edge the padding up so the insert is removed from the hole.
Once you've removed all the above, this is what it looks like:
Now you need to place the components into the helmet. The battery is placed on the right side of the helmet. In the polystyrene padding you removed, there's a place to put the battery you assembled (Figure #8).
The problem is that when you put the padding back, the battery will slip. I placed a piece of double-sided tape on the battery to hold it in place. Nolan do say there's a special part inside the helmet shell for the battery holder, but I had problems finding it.
WARNING: Now here comes a part that was not mentioned at all in the instruction manual (I had the French version, maybe other languages have got it mentioned), so hopefully if you read this you'll not be forced to open the "patient" again. The lead used for charging the battery (black lead at the bottom of Figure #17) needs to go out of the helmet, since you need to charge the battery!
With no mention of the battery charge lead, I placed the lead at the fold of the lining.
The bottom arrow shows you the battery charge lead. When not in use, you can fold it into the lining. The upper arrow shows you the microphone place.
The loudspeakers are placed in the appropriate hole in the polystyrene padding, and the loudspeaker leads are put in the lead gutters in the same padding. There are self-adhesive Velcros that you can use to hold the loudspeakers in place. I didn't bother, since the loudspeakers are held very well in place by the polystyrene itself.
You now need to reverse the installation, and put everything back. Put the polystyrene padding back (careful, they are fragile), and then the center lining. This bit is more difficult, since you need to "feel" where it goes. I used the round metal loupe, and placed it in the hole at the front of the helmet, where the cheek pads will go.
After that, you clip in the cheek pads, using the three push buttons (Figure #10).
Now all you need to do is place the main electronics box in to the helmet:
The left part of the N-COM unit is slid in the appropriate hole on the left of the helmet. On the right are two plastic slides which will click in place when firmly pushed down. It's these two slides (see arrows above) that you push to remove the unit from the helmet.
That's it for the open heart surgery. Nurse, wheel the patient out to recovery....
Configuring the N-COM
You need to make sure your units are fully charged. Nolan recommend that you charge the battery for at least 10 hours at first. Then, use the N-COM until the battery is fully discharged, and then fully charge it again. That way, there's not battery memory, and the battery will last longer.
Mobile Phone Pairing
Like with any Bluetooth device, you need to "introduce", the individual components to each other. A bit like "Mr. Nolan, I would like to introduce Mrs. iPhone, Mrs iPhone, may I present Mr. Nolan to you. Mr. Nolan is a headset, Mrs. iPhone is a mobile phone". This is called "pairing" in Bluetooth speak.
- Make sure the phone is off.
- Turn on the N-COM by pressing the On button (Figure #20-1) for about 4 seconds. The lights go on in the three buttons, and you will hear a beep.
- Do NOT let go off the ON button, keep it pressed for another 4 seconds. The lights will start flashing, and you hear a longer, sharper beep.
- Let go of the ON button.
- Use your mobile phone's procedure to put your phone in "DISCOVERY" mode.
- The phone should show "N-COM BT" in the display (Figure #19)
- Select the "N-COM".
- You will be asked for a password. Enter "0000", and confirm
- You mobile phone will confirm the pairing.
- The N-COM lights will stop flashing.
- Turn off the N-COM by pressing on the ON button for 4 seconds until you hear a beep, and the lights go off.
Pairing your N-COM with a GPS is the same. Follow the above instructions. If you have a Bluetooth mobile phone and one of the newer generation GPS made for motorcycles, like the Garmin Zumo or TomTom Rider, couple your phone with the GPS, and the GPS with the N-COM.
Testing the Nolan N103 and N-COM
Finally, we get to the meat part of the article; the test. We'll start with the helmet itself, followed by individual tests (ie alone) followed by test with two people.
The Nolan 103 Helmet
I've got a reasonably large collection of helmets, totally some 15 motorcycle helmets, ranging from jet, to modular to integral (the above photo shows only a small part of the "collection").
When you remove the Nolan N103 helmet form the box, you will first notice that you've got quality in your hands. It feels good! The helmet is solid, and everything moves that should move, while things that shouldn't move don't move (believe me, that is not always the case with some manufacturers).
The N103 is equipped with an integral sun visor (Figure #4 - above the N-COM unit). Sliding the slide moves the sun visor up and down, into the position you want. If you've got a big nose like me, watch it, since the visor comes down all the way...
The visor is very dark, so it should work well in the sunshine. So far, it's been miserable over here, so I have not been able to test the visor in the sun.
There are two main air vents, both can be opened or closed. The front vent is used for defogging the visor, and from the initial ride test, works very well. No fogging, and enough air circulating to enable you to breath normally.
The top air vent lets in a lot of air, and when I was riding last week with the Nolan, the temperatures were close to freezing, and I had to close the vent since my brain was freezing. It does mean that the vent will provide adequate, if not very good, cooling during the summer.
The chin piece, the bit that goes up and down, is held in place by an interesting mechanism. Most modular motorcycle helmets allow you to flip up the chin piece by pressing a single push lever (BMW have one in the middle, Schuberth has their on the side, GPA have two levers). The Nolan's lever is in the middle, bottom of the chin guard. Except their mechanism is a dual-movement, since by pushing the bottom lever (Figure #23-1) out results in a red tab (Figure #23-2) coming out of the front of the chin guard, which needs to be pushed down.
The flip up action can be performed with one hand, and according to Nolan, it's there to prevent accidental opening of the chin guard/protector. The action is simple, and you get used to it very quickly.
The open/close action is very smooth, with no friction.
Another thing I liked from the Nolan, was the chin strap. Most helmet chin straps require you to shorten or lengthen it to the exact length, so that the chin strap holds the helmet firmly in place, but does not cut off your blood flow. The Nolan chin strap does not use this system. Instead, every time you close the chin strap, you pull in as close as you need, and close the clasp. Instant and prefect, no messing around adjusting.
Helmet Ride Test
I have to say, that with all the high end helmets I have, and have tested, The Nolan N103 is excellent. It's comfortable, and quite silent. When your helmet is in turbulent air (like when riding my BMW 1150GS), noise levels are fine. It's not super silent, but then none of the helmets tested were. On the Ducati 1100 MTS, where the wind screen is low, noise levels are very low.
Trish, my co-tester, had the same opinion. She has BMW and Schuberth helmets, but liked the Nolan more. On her Suzuki, she had little noise, and the helmet did not suffer from wind movements.
As helmets go, the Nolan N103 is very good. As for safety, the Nolan received 4 out of 5 stars in the UK SHARP testing (link).
But this is not a product review of the helmet, but of the Bluetooth communication, N-COM. Here's the test report:
Single Person Test
The first test involved riding on my own, ie, not testing the intercom. Tests will involve the phone, music and GPS.
After 15 minutes of riding, Trish called me on my mobile phone (an Apple iPhone 3G). The call resulted in a ringing sound in the helmet. It's not the ring you have programmed in your phone. You press the ON, Arrow Up or Arrow Down button briefly (Figure #20) to accept a call and the call is put through. If you don't want to talk, press the ON button (Figure #20-1) for about 2 seconds. You'll hear a beep, confirming the action.
Sound quality is excellent. You can increase/decrease the volume by pressing the up or down keys (Figure #20). The sound level is not ear-splitting as some may have, but more than sufficient for riding with earplugs.
The microphone is located at the side of your mouth, but since the helmet is very well sound-proofed, on the receiving side (Trish), sound quality was excellent, and she could not hear the motorcycle or wind noise. I was riding on a country road at 90 kph. I then turned onto the autoroute at 130 kph (honest...), and still on both sides the sound quality was very good. Since it had been freezing, I didn't dare pick up speed for high speed tests, but from the sound levels, I don't think this will be an issue.
Close the call by pressing the ON button for about 2 seconds until you hear a beep.
You also have the option to call the last number, and even voice dial, but your phone must be equipped with that function (and the iPhone is not).
You can listen to music in two different ways. The easiest, and most reliable is wired. The BluetoothKit2 comes delivered with a multimedia wire (Figure #7-5). You can plug the wire into your music player (or other device, like a GPS), and into the multimedia socket of your Nolan N103 helmet:
That provides a full stereo sound. Or, if your music device has Bluetooth, you can listen to that. The N-COM uses the A2DP protocol, meaning stereo. It also uses AVRCP (Audio Video Remote Control Profile), meaning if your device is equipped with AVRCP, you can control it using the N-COM buttons.
NOTE: Remember, your music device needs the A2DP protocol. If not, it might work, but not in stereo, and in low quality.
By the life of me, I can not get my iPhone to transmit music via Bluetooth!!! The problem squarely lies with the iPhone, since I do get music from my Garmin Zumo GPS.
I plugged the iPhone to the Nolan using the Multimedia wire. Sound is really good, and nice stereo. It's not the quality of the Parrot SK4000, which has the best stereo sound, but it was close enough. I don't think you go on a motorcycle ride to listen to concert hall music. But it helps if the quality is good.
If your music device is physically a different device from your phone, you will need to select one. Bluetooth does not allow you to have multiple devices running concurrently. If you want both, use the wire, or use a GPS that connects to the phone and plays music (like the TomTom or Garmin).
UPDATE: You can use different devices, ie, a phone and a music player, at the same time, as long as the player uses A2DP and your phone used the Hand Free protocol. When a call comes in, the N-COM mutes the music.
I used my Garmin Zumo, and paired it to the N-COM. The iPhone is paired to the Zumo, so calls get routed via the Zumo to the N-COM. Instructions coming from the Zumo were heard loud and clear. No problems there.
Music is streamed from the Zumo, but is a bit static. It's a problem I've had with other Bluetooth communicators. The issue is that the Zumo (and other GPSs) send the music via the Hands Free protocol, which is a) mono and b) only uses the voice frequency range, so the quality is not as good as stereo music on a wider spectrum.
Pillion Intercom Test
The last part of the test involved riding with a pillion and testing the intercom. Trish took the challenge (not many people want to ride pillion with me...). Her Nolan N103 was paired with my N103.
Nolan allows you to interconnect rider and pillion via wire (optional), or via Bluetooth. We used the Bluetooth connection.
Sound levels are more than adequate, at any speed. We could clearly hear each other, and did not need to repeat our words. You can also turn the intercom off. A brief press on the ON button (Figure #20-1), turns it on or off. Nice if you want some silence.
Your connection is carried for a maximum of 10 meters, though we lost ours at around 8 meters. This means you can not use it for bike-to-bike (Nolan have a module for bike-to-bike as optional extra). Some Bluetooth communicators nowadays allow for 100 meters or more communication between modules, but the Nolan N-COM does not.
When I started up the iPhone music (using the Multimedia wire), Trish could hear the music, but in MONO. The sound is transmitted in mono and not in stereo. But she can put her own music (iPod), wired into her helmet, so she doesn't need to listen to my music.
With the Garmin Zumo GPS on, she could listen to the instructions, which is excellent, since sometimes you're too busy to take note, and she could repeat what you missed. All-in-all, everything worked as advertised.
The Nolan Helmet is excellent, there is no doubt about it. As helmets go, it's one of the top of the line.
The N-COM is very good. What I liked is its simplicity; only three buttons, and you don't need to go hunting for them. It's ergonomic. Sound quality is good, however, on a more negative note, there is a slight audio hiss. It's not disturbing when you ride, since outside noise reduces it. But when you're not on the motorcycle, you will hear the hiss.
You need to ensure that whatever unit you use is properly certified for Bluetooth. Nolan's N-COM has been certified by the Bluetooth SIG (Bluetooth 2.0 Class 2)!
What we like:
- Quality helmet
- Outside sound isolation
- Comfort level
- Sound level
- Sound quality
What we didn't like:
- Background hiss when not riding
- Not having the extended Bluetooth range
All-in-all, a highly recommendable helmet.
Nolan offer different possibilities for connection. Mono multimedia wires, stereo, wires, bike-to-bike, etc.
Watch the presentation on the N-COM site: click here w-window.gif/$file/New-window.gif" alt="Open link in a new window" title="Open link in a new window" border="0">