Radio communication systems are becoming increasingly popular at all levels of the game. Many youth and amateur refs have figured out how to put together their own comm systems, using commonly available two-way radios, bypassing the $2000+ price tag of the systems used in the professional game.
Companies in the wireless communication space have taken notice, and many of them have “repurposed” their offerings for other industries in an attempt to get in on the action.
Eartec Communication Systems is one such company. Based in Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA, Eartec has been providing communication solutions for the industrial and manufacturing verticals and has repositioned the popular ComStar Full Duplex Communication System for use by referees ($1,599.95)
Before we get started, a quick primer on the basics of two-way radio communications is in order. Most two-way radios (“walkie-talkies” if you prefer) are “simple duplex“, meaning that you push a button to speak, release the button to listen. You can’t talk and listen at the same time, and no more than one person can talk at a time.
Full duplex, then, means that all parties can talk and listen at the same time. A common example of this technology in action is right in your pocket: the mobile phone.
The ComStar Wireless System is full duplex. This is a feature typically found only on higher end systems, and goes a long way toward explaining its $1600 price tag.
ComStar ships in a large (slightly overbuilt) high impact plastic road case, and consists of three components: the base station, which relays all communication between users; the headsets; and a belt pack which contains the transceiver. The wired headset plugs into the belt pack transceiver.
The belt pack weighs in at a featherweight 2.5 ounces (71 grams) so it doesn’t weight you down at all. But, it is a belt pack, and that requires, well, a belt. For my two test matches, I tried wearing the ComStar belt pack on a runner’s belt (really just a smaller version of the fanny/hip packs of yesteryear) with mixed results. The pack wanted to jump off of the belt when I was an AR on the first match. It seemed to stay in place better when I used it in the middle on my second match. Why the difference? Beats me.
The headset is functional enough, but isn’t particularly comfortable, and I found it tiresome about half way through the second half of the second game. Sound quality was clear enough, although it wasn’t much better than a standard business class two way radio. A more comfortable headset would be appreciated.
The base station, which can run on proprietary removable and rechargeable battery packs, or AC, couldn’t be more simple to use. Just load the battery pack, turn it on, and you’re ready to go. Same with the belt packs. The system gets high marks for ease of use. But I wonder about its ability to hold up under adverse weather conditions. Luckily, I was able to test the system on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, without a cloud in the sky. In Georgia, we often get pop up thunderstorms, especially in late afternoon during the late Spring months. I imagine myself blowing the whistle during a promising attack build up and running full speed to get my $1600 radio system under cover. “Sorry fellas, just had to take a quick time out!”
Having full duplex sound and therefore an open mic on each referee was easily the standout feature of the the ComStar system. The first match I tested the system on was an Under 19 boys 1st division game. These games typically require a decent amount of player management, and I found it very helpful (and insightful) to hear what the referee was saying to the players.
While the full duplex sound was appreciated, the system didn’t deal well with the referee’s whistle. I expected more compression, similar to what you would experience on a typical two-way radio. But what I heard was much more harsh and hard on the ears, as you can hear in the sound samples below. (portions of the recordings were digitally enhanced to raise the volume of the player’s voices)
There were also problems with sound “glitching” and static from time-to-time during the match. While the product literature claims an effective line-of-sight range of 400 yards, I found it struggling with 150 yards on a clear day and no visible obstructions. At halftime of the second match, I moved the base station from the corner of the field where the referee team had setup, to a empty seat in the bleachers, right at midfield. This position proved to be much better because we didn’t have any problems with static or glitching in the second half.
Overall, using the ComStar was a cool experience, and I definitely see the benefit of full duplex communication capability. But for “only” a few hundred dollars more, I’d purchase the Vokkero Basix system – the entry level version of the system used in MLS and the BPL. Until I have an extra $2000 available for that, I’ll be sticking with my self-assembled kit that I’ve spent far less on and am very happy with.
Thanks to the staff at Eartec Systems and SoccerSuperstoreUSA.com for providing the ComStar to iTOOTR for review.