All About Radios

When Premier League (and MLS) referees started using radio communications, I was immediately intrigued.  Being both a referee and bit of a tech nerd, I had to investigate and see if I could use something similar.

Little did I know that my research would eventually become so involved or take as long as it has.  But, the result of my exploration is a fairly in-depth look into all of the options available to referees.

Starting at the Top

The Premier League, MLS, and, most top leagues around the world, use the Vokkero Referee Communication System.  Made by the French company Adeunis RF, it is state-of-the-art.  It features full duplex (open mic, no push-to-talk button), encrypted and an exceptionally long range (800 meters).  While I’ve never used one (despite requests to the manufacturer for a review set), referees who have rave about the clarity and quality of the system.  It even filters the whistle tone so that the Assistant Referees aren’t blasted when the referee blows.

All of the functionality comes at a very steep price.  An entry level set for three users starts at about $2100.  A full featured set like those used in the Premier League, with custom headsets for four users easily tops $5000.  If you’re interested in purchasing one of these systems, they can be found at Referee Store.com and Official Sports in the USA.

I’ve used a set of Vokkero radios extensively, and they really are top drawer.  Sound quality is excellent; better than a telephone, I would rate fidelity on par with a smartphone in “HD calling” mode.  There are no buttons to push at all.  You strap the radios to your shoulder, plug up the headsets, turn them on, adjust volume, and off you go.  It can be distracting at times, as the referee, hearing AR1 talking to the technical areas or the substitutes, but the ability to communicate so easily makes it clear why the Vokkeros are a must for the highest levels of the game.  Look for a full review on the Vokkeros soon.

My only complaint about the Vokkeros – apart from price, of course – is that the armbands tend to loosen over time and will slip down your arm.  You have get them very tight from the off to ensure they won’t slip, and that can be a bit uncomfortable.

Realizing that Vokkeros would be out of reach for almost all referees below the top level, I began investigating alternatives.  I’ve tried a total of six different sets, ranging in price from about $100 to $800.  My investigation required me to learn a lot more about radio communication than I initially planned: radio transmission technologies, licensing requirements, headset availability and compatibility, battery life, and so on.  I’m going to spare you most of the technology details.  Maybe I’ll write those up in a future post.  For now, I’ll focus on the implications of what I’ve found.

Common Features

All the radios and technologies discussed here share the following features in common:

  • Range: More than enough range to work on a soccer field.  If you want to use the radios for other purposes, you’ll need to do more homework.  Just keep in mind that the range stated on the package is under “ideal conditions” which don’t ever exist in the real world.
  • External headset support.  What varies between radios is what type of headset that can be used, and the range of choices available.
  • Rechargeable batteries are also common to all of these units.  Some also allow you to use regular alkaline batteries as a backup.
  • Push-to-Talk. With one exception, these radios primarily use push-to-talk (PTT) to facilitate communication between users.  You push a button, usually on the microphone, when you want to speak.  As soon as your button is pushed, all other users are prohibited from transmitting; they’ll have to wait until you are done speaking to have their turn.  Using PTT takes some practice and coaching because users tend to start talking just before pushing the PTT button, and then release the button before they finish.  This leads to some very choppy transmissions, especially on monosyllabic words like “yes” and “no”.

So what about those sets the Premier League referees use? Open mic, full duplex and all of that?   Apart from the Vokkero, that technology is available only on the Ref Comm system from Referee Store.com.  I’ve used a predecessor to the Ref Comm set only once, and that wasn’t in a match environment.  Others who have tested it say that background noise is distracting.  The manufacturer says background sound levels can be adjusted.  I plan to conduct my own testing of this system in the future.

A quick word about “VOX”.  VOX is a transmission mode included on many radios.  It stands for Voice Activated eXchange, and promises to activate the microphone when it detects you speaking.  This sounds good in theory, because you then don’t have to use your PTT button.  But in reality, the mics tend to be either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, making them very frustrating to use.  Most referees I know don’t bother with VOX.

Entry Level

Starting at roughly $60 for a set of four, the least expensive entry into radios is a set that operate on the Family Radio Service (FRS) or General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) frequency bands (these are North American frequencies; I’m sure there are corresponding technologies in the EU, but I didn’t investigate). FRS/GMRS radios are what you would normally think of as “walkie-talkies”, and are widely available.  Using one of the radios on the FRS bands does not require an FCC operator’s license; using GMRS does require a license.  That said, there is nothing stopping you from using a GMRS (or any other radio) without a license, apart from the thread of a fine from the FCC.  You’ll have to decide it’s worth the risk.

FRS/GMRS radios features typically include several channels to choose from (to avoid interference from other radio users on the same channel), and basic encryption that prevents scanners from listening in on your conversations.

Most of the units are fairly small and feature long battery life that should get you through an afternoon of matches without any problems.

You’ll need to purchase headsets for use with your radios, and those will run you another $30 to $50 for a set of four.  Headsets for these radios are typically proprietary to the radio; you can’t use a headset from another radio brand or your phone.  The two types of headsets I tried and would recommend are the “surveillance style” (think about what law enforcement officers wear) and the boom headset style.

There are numerous brands available, but Midland appears to be the most popular among referees.  Midland radios are widely available, including at big box superstores and online retailers.  Here’s the set I tried.

The sound quality on Midland radios is acceptable, but not great.  I found the boom headset produced better sound than the surveillance headsets, probably because of the proximity of the microphone to the user’s mouth.  Noticeable is a “click” sounds when someone presses the transmit button, followed by a bit of static when the button is released.

You’ll need a way to strap the radio to your body; the belt clips don’t grip refereeing shorts tightly enough and will bounce around when you run.  I tried four or five different types and finally found a couple that were acceptable. See the separate section on armbands below for details.

The Midland radios are little cumbersome to wear strapped to your shoulder, but not overly so.  Make sure you get a set with a lockable keypad; this prevents the keys from being accidentally pressed while you are getting is strapped to your body.

In summary, FRS radios like those available from Midland are inexpensive, have good range, have a couple of choices for headsets, and have good battery life.  On the downside, you do only have a couple of headset choices, the sound quality is just okay, and location of the PTT button – usually clipped on to your shirt placket – can be inconvenient.

Business Class Radios

Business Class Radios operate on a reserved frequency band and require an FCC license to operate.  Most resellers don’t require you to provide proof of a license before purchase, but some do.

In many ways, Business Class Radios are similar to their FRS cousins.  They look the same, buttons and menus tend to be very similar, and operate using PTT technology.

But they offer some important advantages, including more rugged construction (many claim to meet military specs for water, dust, and drop resistance), improved sound quality, greater control over specific features, and a much wider range of available accessories and headsets.  In addition, some of the radios in the class are significantly smaller, making them quite comfortable when worn on the body.

Of course, these features come at a price, with most business class radios starting at about $129 each, not including headsets.

I tried two different radios in this group: an older Kenwood, model #TK-3130, a common, but retired,  business class radio, and a rather unique offering from Advanced Wireless Communications called the MiniPro.

Both of these radios boast a theoretical range of over 1 mile.  They both accept standard Kenwood style (K1) headsets, from which there are many to choose, and from a range of makers.  This is an important distinction, as the types of headsets available for the Midland FRS radios are more or less limited to the few made by Midland themselves.

I found the Kenwood 3130s at a bargain price on eBay.  And while I received a defective unit in my initial order, the seller quickly replaced the faulty unit with 2 good radios.  As of this writing, the seller, bonfireradios, is still offering these units for sale at about $15 each.

The 3130s are a bit on the large side, but at that price, I can deal with a little discomfort.  They fit snugly into a couple of the straps mentioned later.

The radios function well and sound much clearer than the cheaper FRS radios.  The transmit click and de-transmit static are almost undetectable in these radios, a feature my ears appreciated.

The MiniPro from Advanced Wireless Communications is a very compact, short range radio, primarily marketed to retail stores, restaurants and the like.  It doesn’t have a menu screen – settings are controlled by a series of button push combinations, confirmed by a robotic voice – which allows the radio to be much smaller.  The MiniPro is very lightweight and quite comfortable when worn strapped to a shoulder.  Sound quality was as good – if not a little better – than the Kenwood.  It uses a rechargeable battery pack and does not accept standard alkaline batteries.

Unfortunately, the transmit click on the MiniPro was similar to the Midland FRS radios; I found it distracting, but others who tested it didn’t even notice it until I brought it to their attention.

RefTalk

An article on radio communications for referees would be incomplete without a mention of RefTalk.  RefTalk was the first radio communication system used in MLS; it was later replaced by Vokkero.  RefTalk was founded by a USA-based referee and has been in business for several years.  So ubiquitous has RefTalk become that many referees use the term “RefTalk” to apply to any radio communication set (much the way Americans refer to any facial tissue as “Kleenex” or Brits call all vacuum cleaners “Hoovers”).  While the company was unable to provide iTOOTR with a set of radios for review, an investigation revealed that RefTalk is a business class radio, made by a large radio manufacturer and then applied with the RefTalk private label.  I would expect performance to be  similar to the other two business class radios reviewed here.  RefTalk introduced a full duplex radio version, called the RefTalk2, after the original publication of this post.

Business Class Radios are a big step up from FRS radios – in both features and price.  You’ll have to decide if these additional features are important enough to you to warrant the price jump.  For me, the choices in headsets alone were enough to justify the higher price.

Short Range Radios

After digging around for a while, I discovered another category of radios: Short Range.  These tend to be application-specific and targeted for use by professionals who don’t have a need for long range, like camera operators, crane operators, or referees.

Radios in this class typically operate on frequencies that don’t require an FCC license, and some offer full duplex (open mic) communication.

I tested two sets of radios in this class, both from Eartec Corporation.  The ComStar Communication Set was reviewed in detail on this site, so I’m only going to summarize here.  The ComStar radios are full duplex, meaning that there is no PTT button (although there is a mute button), and the microphones are always on.  As an AR on a match where the crew used these, it was fantastic to be able to hear the referee at all times, including when he spoke to players.

On the other hand, hearing AR1 manage substitutes, coaches and the technical area in general was a little distracting.  The referee’s whistle was a bit harsh on the ears.

Sound quality was very good, but we did pick up some unexplained interference on a couple of occasions.

Overall, I couldn’t justify the $1600 price tag for this set.

I also tested the SimulTalk 24G radios from EarTec.  These radios are sort of hybrid between full duplex and PTT.  When you order a set, you get a master radio and two (or more) remote units.  The master is always transmitting, so that the other members of the crew can hear the referee, and the referee doesn’t have to push a button to speak.

The assistant referees do have to push a button on the transmitter to speak to the referee.  The PTT button is located on the transmitter, not on the headset wire, so that these belt packs must be worn on the belt and not the shoulder in order to be accessible.  Once the talk button is pressed, it stays “on” until it is pressed again to release the radio from talk mode.  This means that a forgetful AR could prevent the AR from communicating with the referee is she were to forget to release the button after speaking.

On the other hand, it means that AR1’s microphone is not always open so that the other two members of the crew don’t have to listen to management of substitutes and coaches.

A side note for high school referees: if you ever work in a two-person crew, these radios are ideal because both units can be set for full duplex (open mic) mode.

The sound quality on the SimulTalk was similar to that of a cordless telephone, which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the technology used in the SimulTalk.

Range was more than adequate, and interference was never a problem in two separate tests in high school stadiums

The included headsets were uncomfortable for me, so I created an alternative, which I describe in the Headsets section.

Given that the SimulTalk radios retail for $125 each (plus headsets), and feature (nearly) full duplex communication, this is the set I  settled on for my own use, until I finally broke down and purchased the Vokkero set.

Headsets

Selecting a headset in many ways is more important than the radio itself.  After all, you’re going to be wearing a headset for 90 minutes (or more if you’re doing multiple games), so comfort, stability when running, and durability are very important considerations.

Midland brand FRS radios have several Midland branded headsets available, but very few third-party options.  Of the Midland-made headsets, I found only two that were suitable for use in refereeing: the surveillance style headset, and the boom mic (that boom mic appears to be discontinued.  This boom is very similar).  The advantage of the boom mic is clearer communications because the mic is much closer to your mouth than with the surveillance style set, which clips on your shirt placket.  On the other hand, I bumped the microphone a couple of times when raising the whistle to blow.  Perhaps keeping the boom mic on the side of your face opposite the hand you keep the whistle in would solve this small problem.

Business class radios typically have a number of headset options available.  There are a handful of de facto standards for headset-to-radio connections, the most common of which is the Kenwood style (K1).  Make sure you check the headset and radio specifications carefully, because there is more than one Kenwood headset connector type.  I tried several K1 headsets with my business class radios and finally settled on a surveillance style set from Impact Communications.  These headsets aren’t inexpensive with a retail price around $95 each.  What you get for a premium price is a premium quality headset.  The wires are Kevlar coated for durability, and the speaker mechanisms used in the microphones and speakers produce much better sound that lower-priced alternatives.  In addition, Impact makes a three-wire version of the headset, which gives you a remote PTT switch that you can place anywhere you choose (I found my waistband to be the best place).  The three-wire sets take some time to get fitted, so make sure you have at lest 30 minutes for your crew to get everything on a tested prior to you match.

I also found that headsets made for other purposes – like for use with a smartphone – could be adapted for use with a two-way radio, IF you are willing to do a little research and spend a little extra money.  The problem with using these headsets straight out of the box is that the plugs are wired differently from typical two way radio headsets.  This problem can be overcome with a little research and willingness to get a custom cable, either by paying for one or making it yourself.

To illustrate, I like my ety-com headset (Etymotic Research, $50) for iPhone so much, I wanted to use it with my radios.  In order to do that, I needed to get the wiring for the the plug on the headset, as well as the wiring for the jack on my radios.  These wiring specifications are known in the business as “pinouts” and most companies will provide them to you if you ask.  Once you know the pinouts of the headset and the radio, you can have a cable made that adaptes your headset to the radio.  I use ShowMeCables for this purpose, and while the prices aren’t cheap (about $40 per cable, including shipping), I’ve been pleased with the results.  Keep in  mind that you’ll still need a way to activate the PTT button, and the ety-com doesn’t come with a PTT button.  In my case, I used the ety-com headsets with the EarTec SimulTalk 24G radios, in which case you either don’t need a PTT button, or if you do, you use the button located on the unit itself.

Securing the Radio

You’ll need a mechanism for securing the radio against your body so that it won’t flop around when you run.  Generally speaking, clipping the radio to the waistband of your shorts doesn’t work very well.  The clip doesn’t have enough force to keep the radio from moving around when you’re running.  Fortunately, there are plenty of good, inexpensive alternatives.

Runner’s Belts

These are similar to what we Americans used to call “fanny packs”, only much smaller.  They fit around your waist have have a small, expandable zippered pocket for stowing items, including most radios.  I found the Kenwood TK-3130 was a tight fit, but most of the other radios I tested worked well.  I found the pouch still flopped around a bit on my back (I keep the pouch turned to my back), just enough to be bothersome, but this solution is secure enough and you can find plenty of them on amazon.com.

Shoulder Straps

I tested numerous shoulder straps, including one made specifically for two-way radios, and found one I can recommend.

For most radios, the iPhone 5 shoulder strap from Tune Belt ($19, Amazon) worked just fine.  There are also versions for iPhone 6, including a model that works with iPhone 6 without removing it from a case and 6 Plus.  I offer these alternatives in case you want to use the armband for refereeing and for working out.  It keeps the radio secure against your upper shoulder and it’s full enclosure means the radio won’t flop around when you’re running.  The SimulTalk Radios are a bit tight in these armbands with the headset plugged in.  I even prefer the Tune Belt armbands for use with my Vokkero set.

Advanced Wireless Communications offers a purpose-built Universal Armband for two-way radios.  The problem with this solution is that it wasn’t really designed with running in mind.  It uses the belt clip on the radio to clip to the shoulder strap.  When I ran with this, the radio still flopped around a bit.  And when a player bumped into me, the radio came off of the strap completely.

Summary

It is possible for referees below the top level to use radio communications without spending a fortune.  But keep your expectations properly set; full duplex communication with custom headsets will cost you a small fortune.  If you are willing to live with some trade-offs, you can find a communication set that is functional, practical and won’t break the bank.

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