Used correctly, radios in team environments have huge benefits. We’ve discussed radio quite a bit over time, so I’m not going to sell you on it here. Instead, I want to talk about another problem I’ve noticed associated with it, and that’s how to integrate radio into your equipment without spending a huge amount of money.
I’m sure you’ve already noticed this, but browsing the average tactical Instagram page or YouTube channel, it seems like just about everyone is using ear protection with integrated communications. That usually looks like ear pro with a boom mic and a cable running off of the headset to a push-to-talk (PTT) unit, and then the radio.
While this configuration has a lot of merit, it’s also a huge barrier to entry.
Defining the Issue
I have two problems with this configuration. First, and more importantly, is the price. A quality set of communications ear pro like Ops-Core AMPs, PELTOR ComTacs, or Otto NoizeBarrier Tacs will easily run you between $600 and $1000+ just for the headset. Then you also need a suitable PTT, which will run you another $120 or so from Disco32.
This level of expense is very high, especially for people who just wanted to use their $40 Baofengs. Even if you plan on using a nicer radio in the $300 to $400 range, it’s still not the $2,000+ radios these headsets were designed for.
Secondly, these nice headset configurations limit you to only using use your radio “tactically” to when you’re also wearing your $700 ear pro. What if you didn’t want to raise that kind of profile? Or, what if you don’t want to wear $700 communications ear pro for a normal day at the range without a radio?
I’m all for people owning the best gear they can afford, and I’m not against LARPing. But since I’m not getting paid to do this professionally, nor do I have the government’s deep pockets to buy my gear, this is an instance where I want to err more on the side of budget and versatility.
Everyday Marksman Flexible Comms Setup
My flexible comms system is built around the idea that there are many ways you might want to use the radio. That could mean full on “tactical” use, completely by itself, or something in between. I want to tailor communications to many situations, both high and low profile, and also not cost a huge amount of money.
My idea started when I noticed the number of electronic ear pro options on the market that included an aux-in audio jack. The Howard Leight Impact Sports, for example, have this feature and most people only talk about in terms of hooking it up to a phone for music. This little feature is an obvious answer for listening to a radio, but it doesn’t really help when it comes to talking.
The next light bulb moment happened while researching speaker mics, as seen on the shoulders of law enforcement officers for generations. The key benefit of the speaker mic is that it allows me keep the radio itself on the belt line or attached to a pack. The speaker mic allows me to both talk and listen without touching the radio itself. The downside is that the speaker mic is still a speaker, which means if you can hear it then so can other people. That’s not very “tactical.”
Then it hit me while reading the spec sheets. Most quality speaker mics have an audio-out jack for routing to a pair of headphones. That gave me an idea. By running a speaker mic somewhere close to the mouth, like the chest or shoulder, and then a second audio cable from the speaker mic to hearing protection, I get the same basic benefit as a high-end tactical headset for a fraction of the cost.
While this is more cables to manage, which I’ll get to in a moment, it allows a ton of flexibility to swap out individual components. In fact, I don’t even need to use electronic hearing protection to listen in.
Companies like Otto Engineering have “surveillance” kits that pipe audio from the radio (or speaker mic) to a surefire EP series ear plug. This allows me to leave behind the bulky headset completely if I wanted to.
Also, the modular nature of this system means there’s some redundancy. If your electronic ear pro batteries die, or the electronics fail, then you simply unplug the headphone jack from the speaker mic and run it by itself.
At any point, if I want to upgrade a component of the system, then no problem. The headset is independent of the speaker mic, which is separate from the radio. I’m able to replace or upgrade any component in the chain.
Setting It Up
This is where things get a bit interesting. The core of the flexible comms system is the speaker mic, but which speaker mic you use depends a lot on your radio and what kind of plug it has available.
For example, my first attempt at this setup used my Yaesu FT3D handheld radio. This is a fairly expensive radio, and yet has a pretty poor selection of speaker mics. It uses a single pin system, and the only suitable speaker mic I could find is Yaesu’s own SSM-17A. While the speaker mic itself works fine, and has an aux out jack, my main issue is not with the small speaker mic itself, but with the connection to the radio. The single pin system just isn’t that secure, and the plug is prone to coming out when pushed the wrong way.
Yaesu replaced the FT3D with the newer FT5D, but this concern still persists. The screw-down style pin on the VX6R seems much more desirable.
My next iteration used an AnyTone 878 UVII+ DMR radio. This uses the common two-pin Kenwood connector. You’ll find this style on many radios, including Baofengs. It’s common enough that I decided to splurge and pick up a higher quality speaker mic from Otto Engineering, the Otto Storm. There are a lot of variations of this speaker mic, each designed for different radio connections. The main reason I wanted it was that it’s designed for military use, and I figured being mounted on my chest or shoulder is a spot prone for abuse.
Whichever speaker mic you use, make sure that it has a 2.5mm or 3.5mm audio-out port- and take note of what size you need.
The last step is linking the speaker mic with your headset. It took some searching, but I finally found a good source at Comm Gear Supply. They have both 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm coiled cables as well as 3.5 mm to 3.5 mm cables.
Not including the radio or electronic ear pro, this setup should cost you between $50 and $100 to implement, depending on how nice of a speaker mic you use. If you’re running a cheap Baofeng and Howard Leights, you’re looking at another $90 or so.
Comm Cable Management
Once you have all of this gear, now it’s time to manage the cables. this is a delicate balance of keeping things in a convenient spot while also not interfering with other important functions like shouldering weapons, wearing backpacks, or riding in vehicles.
There’s a good number of opinions on this that I’ve seen from law enforcement and first responders. Unfortunately, there’s not really a single solution that’s going to work for everyone. The most important points are that you do not want your cables to interfere with your other gear, nor do you want them to be loose and dangling about so that they become snag hazards.
To be honest, I’m still working on this myself. It seems that every piece of gear I have means routing wires slightly differently each time.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of other options to consider. One of them is significantly more expensive, but nice. The other is more of a surplus option, but still affordable.
The third route is an in-ear microphone/monitor. This is a combination ear pro, speaker, PTT, and microphone that pics up on bone conduction. One that came highly recommended to me is the Silynx Clarus FX-2. Of course, at over $500, this is a premium option that I don’t think most people will go for unless they were willing to jump for the communications-enabled over-ear protection anyway.
A less expensive option that I also came across, performing nearly the same function, is a set of Racal Acoustics Frontier in-the-ear headsets. You can find these on the used market for about $70. Note that you’ll have to figure out how to handle the additional audio module that doesn’t have a mounting mechanism.
So is the flexible comms system perfect? No. It does have several parts to contend with, especially wires and small 2.5mm or 3.5mm connection ports. These things can be weak points for sure. That said, I think a mixture of radio, speaker mic, and audio cable to ear pro makes for an inexpensive yet effective communication solution when needed.
Not long after I started acquiring parts to do this, KS6DAY on YouTube published a video outlining the exact same configuration and detailed how he used it in his own professional background.
The more important thing is going to be your communications procedures. That’s a topic for another day.